Credit: Ken Howard

Stanley Kowalski, the Polish-American ”primitive brute” indelibly played by Marlon Brando in the 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, becomes Stanley-with-no-last-name, an African-American man played by Blair Underwood in Broadway’s latest production of the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play (one in which the playwright’s description of Stanley as ”apelike” takes on new, racially troubling overtones). That shock isn’t by any means a bad thing. Director Emily Mann’s staging of a multiracial Streetcar for 2012 is glued together with its own curious integrity, inviting audiences to consider what class, upward mobility, domestic violence, and sexual passion might mean to a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood in 1950s New Orleans, and the result is intriguing. It’s just…a different Streetcar we’re riding, one that deposits the ruined Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Soul Food‘s Nicole Ari Parker) at the shabby flat of her sister, Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Stella’s glowering, bellowing, brawling, passionate, antagonized husband, Stanley. In this novel configuration, it’s up to Underwood’s Stanley, more than ever, to set the temperature of the hothouse.

The handsome movie and TV star (The Event, In Treatment, L.A. Law, Deep Impact) makes his Stanley a more complicated, more complexly rounded man than some who have played the iconic role (including Brando as Stanley the sexual animal and Alec Baldwin as Stanley the blustering bully). This is hard work, especially with a theater audience disconcertingly ready for fun and audibly oohing at the sight of the comely actor removing his shirt. But Underwood rises to the challenge. His Stanley is a drinking, card-playing, working man whose love for his wife is more mature and more evident in the midst of their hot embraces and their violent fights. He presents a different kind of provocation to Blanche, who, for all her desperate airs and genteel graces, has been undone by her own ”epic fornications” before she ever sets foot in her sister’s home and begins raiding the place for something to drink. Contrasted with Underwood’s dark brown complexion, the lighter skin tones of the beautiful and aristocratic-looking Parker also silently signify in the emotional battles being fought. Throughout, this Blanche retains a heartbreaking dignity in the midst of all her reveries, fabrications, flirtations, and degradations. (Her wardrobe, by costume designer Paul Tazewell, is delicious.)

Rubin-Vega?forever adored as the original Mimi in Rent — makes Stella less of an abused wife and more of a partner in the thrill of violence. If Wood Harris (best known as The Wire‘s Avon Barksdale) has a harder time as Stanley’s more gentlemanly friend, Mitch, on whom Blanche sets her sights, that’s probably because the character is the most difficult to easily translate in the racially reversed role of an upstanding mama’s man taking care of his ailing mother. Terence Blanchard’s original music, a mournful, bluesy drawl of brass, blends sweetly with Eugene Lee’s set evocatively depicting the snug and rickety joint that Stanley and Stella call home.

Mann’s color-blind production arrives four years after an African American production of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which Terrence Howard got the leading role that Underwood very much wanted. As Blanche talks about her ”lily-white fingers,” a rider of this Streetcar may experience bumps on the journey never intended by the playwright. But the play still reaches its destination as a mid-century classic of American theater. B+

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A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes