We gave it a B+
Fair warning: Every performance of Cate Blanchett’s limited engagement of A Streetcar Named Desire — which only plays through Dec. 20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — is essentially sold out. Unfair, we know. But the good news is that Blanchett will probably be back in the not-so-distant future. She’s not one of those Hollywood stars who swans in to ”prove herself” on stage; while she’s not giving award-winning film performances, she runs the Sydney Theatre Company with her husband, Andrew Upton. (It was his adaptation of Hedda Gabler she performed at BAM in 2006.) It’s the STC backing Blanchett as she takes on Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroine Blanche Dubois, the most unstable belle in the playwright’s well-stocked stable of Southern belles.
Half the battle in mounting Streetcar is getting a good Stanley, Blanche’s blue-collar ”Polack” brother-in-law who eventually becomes her undoing. (As well cast as Natasha Richardson was as Blanche on Broadway in 2005, John C. Reilly’s schlubby Stanley completely derailed that production.) The actor needs to be desirable in an animalistic way — dirty sexy. ”There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that sort of make everything else seem unimportant,” says Stella (a sensational Robin McLeavy), explaining her drunken, abusive husband to her disapproving sister. And this Stanley, Joel Edgerton, is just right, from his pumped-up pecs down to his dirty fingernails. Edgerton and McLeavy seem completely, hopelessly in love, and his ”Stellaaaaaa!” scene — a heart-wrenching plea of anguish, reproach, humiliation, desperation, and adoration — is simply devastating. He generates genuine sympathy for Stanley…and even, for a few minutes, makes us forget about Marlon Brando’s 1951 movie rendition (no small feat).
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.)
Beyond the Blanche-Stanley-Stella triumvirate, however, director Liv Ullmann’s production can be a bit bumpy — like any streetcar ride. As Mitch, Stanley’s poker pal and Blanche’s would-be beau, Tim Richards at first strikes the right awkward notes, but when Mitch’s feelings sour (he finds out that ”Dame Blanche,” as Stanley calls her, likes ’em young), so does Richards’ acting. And while Ullmann’s integration of blues music is inspired and laudable — why aren’t more Williams productions infused with the sounds of his hometown New Orleans? — one wishes that element ran even deeper: Most of the songs, like the Ink Spots’ ”If I Didn’t Care” (a tune that, as Ullmann explains in the program note, served as a sort of soundtrack while Williams was writing Streetcar) seep in between scenes, and fade out all too quickly. There is, however, something almost musical about Blanchett’s performance — the way she flutters her arms, her balletic glide across the stage, the melancholy trill of her voice as she practically belts out, ”I don’t want realism. I want magic!” When Blanchett is center stage, this Streetcar is absolutely transporting. B+
(To inquire about availability of partial-view seats, call BAM ticket services at 718.636.4100)