Thursday, December 3, 2009

Streetcar Named Desire

GRADE: B+


Photo: Sarah Krulwich

By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Liv Ullman(!), At BAM Through December 20th

After a three year absence, Cate Blanchett has returned with yet another outsized performance in a revival of a shopworn classic. Last time, it was Hedda, this time, it's Blanche. Even those critics who don't particularly care for the production (Zacharek, McNulty and Vincentelli) have nothing but effusive praise for Blanchett's performance of the fading southern Belle. Yaysayers (particularly the Times and Backstage, the production's major champions) praise Liv Ullman's at-times sneakily radical take on the play.


NYTimes A+
(Ben Brantley) With this Streetcar, the ghosts of Leigh — and, for that matter, of Marlon Brando, the original Stanley — remain in the wings. All the baggage that any “Streetcar” usually travels with has been jettisoned. Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have performed the play as if it had never been staged before, with the result that, as a friend of mine put it, “you feel like you’re hearing words you thought you knew pronounced correctly for the first time.”

Time Out New York A+
(David Cote) Director Liv Ullmann (yes, the Swedish film star) has conjured a haunting, visceral production drenched in jazz, achieving the perfect balance of style and grit to match Williams’s poetic realism. Ullmann’s Australian cast is, furthermore, one of the most fiercely physical you will see. Their sweaty, kinetic repertoire runs the gamut from scarily believable slaps and punches to lusty tumbles in bed. Going forward, this is the Streetcar to which other revivals should aspire

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) One thing's for sure: Liv Ullmann's production of this Tennessee Williams classic is not your parents' "Streetcar." A penetratingly intelligent actor herself, Ullmann brings her keen sense of character to her direction, making bold and unusual choices that nevertheless feel fully grounded in psychological truth. She gets us to look at this story and these characters in fresh ways, and anyone who can accomplish that with a play so embedded in our culture deserves every one of the accolades certain to be tossed her way.

Bloomberg A
(John Simon) This production achieves a more than fair share of the premiere’s luster, and not only in the dazzle of Cate Blanchett’s Blanche, but also in much else, starting with Ralph Myers’s set design, with Ullmann’s indubitable input. The Kowalski dump is now grubbier and more Spartan than ever. But its underfurnished spareness allows the often intensely physical confrontations a more untrammeled arena for rampaging vehemence.

NY1 A
(Roma Torre) Blanchett at first seems a little too put together, too much the movie star to do justice to the role but this approach enables her to unravel in spectacular fashion. And she presents a desperate soul clinging to the barest threads to keep from going under. Her gentleman caller scenes with Mitch, played movingly by Tim Richards, are truly heartbreaking. Robin McLeavy has a fine moment-to-moment earthiness as Stella and Joel Edgerton recalls Marlon Brando's Stanley in voice and manner though he claims the role for himself ultimately with a carnality that is both repulsive and convincing. At three hours plus, this is a streetcar that takes its time, making the journey from simple desire to delusion to abject cruelty. And hopeless as it all may seem, Ms. Ullman and company have us riveted to our seats.

Reuters A
(Frank Scheck) Liv Ullmann's numerous film collaborations with Ingmar Bergman serve her well in her staging of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which has just landed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a limited engagement after sold-out runs in Sydney and Washington. The veteran actress has delivered a knockabout production that beautifully captures the shifting emotional states of Tennessee Williams' classic play, and her expert guidance has elicited sterling performances not only from Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois but also by the entire little-known ensemble.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) Subtlety is out, which may be a good thing because, scenically at least, this stripped-down revival with its dour, dingy setting looks a little lost on the wide, expansive Harvey stage. Yet the luminous Blanchett moves as if she owns it. Right from the start, when this pale, blond Blanche, dressed primly in a powder-blue outfit, sits fidgeting on the side of the stage, you can't take your eyes off her.

On Off Broadway A-
(Matt Windman) The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 landmark play A Streetcar Named Desire, which is playing Brooklyn Academy of Music for a limited run, marks the American directorial debut of 70-year-old Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. The detailed production features many nuanced performances and many unexpected and original moments of staging. But too often Ullmann indulges in gratuitous bits of surprise that unnecessarily slow down the drama. For instance, Stanley and Blanche are now seen together in bed just after he rapes her.

TheaterMania B+
(Andy Propst) Theatergoers lucky enough to catch Cate Blanchett's astounding performance as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre, will find the Academy Award-winning actress has cast this iconic role in an entirely fresh, and ultimately harrowing, light.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Streetcar itself, currently on view in a production from Sydney starring Cate Blanchett (BAM Harvey Theater), demonstrates that it can get along nicely without pathos. Harsh-toned, slow, and occasionally a little crude, the staging, by Liv Ullmann, sometimes magnifies Tennessee Williams's strokes of casual realism, like the elevated train that thunders past the Kowalski residence, into giant symbolic stature, giving the play a slightly stilted air. Instead of hurting, this only makes us realize how iconic everything in Streetcar has become, worldwide.

NY Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) By and large, this "Streetcar" is built for one - it's Blanche's story. The casting of Blanchett, one of the heads of STC, has made this show one of the hottest tickets in town. So it's fitting that Blanche's shattered face is the first and last image seen in this three-hour-plus show. It's a haunting sight, and the memory of it lingers long after this vehicle departs.

The Faster Times B+
(Jonathan Mandell) It is safe to say that Joel Edgerton’s performance as Stanley in the current production does not revolutionize acting in America, or even in Brooklyn. The animal is there, but I didn’t see enough of the animal magnetism, which would explain Stella’s attraction to Stanley and bring out the undercurrent of sexual tension in his brutality towards Blanche, or at least make his resentment towards her more understandable. Here he taunts her with rude gestures, throws her radio out the window. Thus Blanche here seems more victimized than self-destructive: We excuse her lies (who isn’t a lush and a fallen woman these days?) , and find her disheveled deterioration almost unwatchable – except of course we must watch, because Cate Blanchett makes us pay attention, in a performance so alive and real it feels painful.


Entertainment Weekly B+
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) That Blanchett is brilliant comes as no surprise. Some may question the casting of the tall, square-shouldered, steely-eyed actress as the fading, fragile Blanche; but her fair skin and beautiful bone structure — which appear so strong on screen — somehow absorb the light on stage, giving her an almost translucent, porcelain-doll look. (And costume designer Tess Schofield has heaps of fun playing dress-up with this doll — a blue ruffle-sleeved chiffon dress, a jade burnt-out silk robe, layer upon layer of taffeta, even a feather boa. This Blanche could be red-carpet ready in an instant.)

New Yorker B
(John Lahr) Thrilling... It’s part of Blanchett’s great accomplishment that she makes Blanche’s self-loathing as transparent and dramatic as her self-regard. She hits every rueful note of humor and regret in Williams’s dialogue....Ullmann’s direction delivers so much pleasure that it’s a shame that, at the finale, she doesn’t deliver the play’s meaning. In her staging of the rape scene that drives Blanche over the edge, Blanche collapses on the bed, only to have her degradation prettified by an invented postcoital dumb show. When, some weeks later, the demented Blanche is taken to a sanitarium, she doesn’t, contrary to Williams’s stage directions, get herself up in the regalia of normalcy, a performance of dignity that, in other stagings, gives genuine pathos to her exit. Instead, still in her slip and bare feet, clutching the doctor with both hands, Blanche is led into the bright light of day like a loony Daisy Mae from “Li’l Abner” ’s Dogpatch. Ullmann’s reductive decisions build to vulgar sentimentality, with Blanche isolated in a spotlight and lost in her own internal music as the curtain falls. Although this doesn’t spoil the evening, it’s a woeful miscalculation.

Variety B-
(David Rooney) Cate Blanchett begins and ends her slow-burning performance as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire pinned in a spotlight. At first, she cowers, frail and terrified upon arrival in an unwelcoming environment; later, she stretches her willowy body into the light, utterly broken yet perhaps strangely liberated. For a woman who has clung so desperately to the forgiving artifice of a paper lantern rather than face the harsh truth of a naked bulb, the radical shift in attitude underscores the cruel irony that her defeat may also be a release. However, such illumination comes only intermittently during the three intervening hours of Liv Ullmann's inconsistent production.

LA Times C+
(Charles McNulty) Erratic...The direction is particularly weak in moving actors across Ralph Myers’ two-tiered set, which is distinguished by a dingy pink depiction of Stanley and Stella’s downstairs apartment. Exits and entrances muddle the stage geography, and logistical miscues (a radio that loses sound before Stanley flings it out the window) only compound the general uncertainty. Equally awkward are the transitions between realism and expressionism, which Williams, like Blanche, thought best to leave unpartitioned.

Wall St. Journal C+
(Terry Teachout) As it happens, this is the first "Streetcar" I've seen whose cast and production team are entirely foreign—Ms. Ullmann is Norwegian, everyone else Australian—and it occurred to me more than once that they were all bending over backwards to give us an idiomatically American "Streetcar," right down to the (mostly excellent) accents. The problem is that seasoned American theatergoers have seen the play and/or the movie many, many times, and don't really need to see it done again in yet another high-strung school-of-Elia-Kazan version. Ms. Blanchett is the chief offender: Her ultraflighty Blanche is so twitchy from the first scene onward that she has nowhere to go but straight into the stratosphere of overacting, and the bottled-in-bond contralto in which she exhales such trademark lines as "I want magic" and "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" sounds as though she were channeling Tallulah Bankhead.

New York Post C+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) If it seems I’m too focused on the show’s star, it’s because there’s not all that much to talk about outside of her performance. McLeavy is a pragmatic Stella, and her scenes with Edgerton’s Stanley are finely realized. He’s a hunk with a chiseled upper body, and you buy their sexual attraction. But when he’s up against Blanchett, Edgerton fares only ably — and “ably” just isn’t enough in this play. What should be a heated clash coursing with hate, resentment and a dash of lust ends up being too one-sided.

New York Magazine D
(Stephanie Zacharek) As Williams wrote her, Blanche is a feather doomed to the painfully ordinary fate of floating down to earth. Ullmann will have no floating here. Unvarnished and dour, right down to Ralph Myers’s aggressively bare Honeymooners-style set, the show is pedestrian when it should be poetic, and the actors rattle around in its spacious emptiness. Joel Edgerton’s Stanley, in particular, can’t find his footing. His well-oiled, eye-popping muscles are right for the part, but he plays Stanley, in all his crudeness, as if he were a lunkhead Edward Burns toughie from South Boston instead of a miserable beast who clings as tenaciously to his fantasy of male superiority as Blanche does to her tattered ideals.

BS A+ 14; TONY A+ 14; NYT A+ 14; BB A 13; NY1 A 13; REu A 13; AP A- 12; OOB A- 12; NYDN B+ 11; EW B+ 11; TM B+ 11; VV B+ 11; TNY B 10; V B- 9; NYP C+ 8; WSJ C+ 8; LAT C+ 8; NYM D 4; TOTAL: 196/18= 10.89 B+

1 comment:

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