There’s the Kindness of Strangers, and then there’s the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations: There was little of the former and plenty of the latter in the run-up to Emily Mann’s production of Streetcar, which features a mostly African-American cast led by Blair Underwood as Stanley and Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche. Critics and theater pooh-bahs have taken pretty strong stands for and against racially constituted revivals of “white” classics, but I’m not sure I see what all the fuss is about: Do we insist on the essential Scottishness of Macbeth?
Okay, so that’s the theater geek’s equivalent of a cheap barroom analogy, but come, come: Streetcar is, by now, mythic, is it not? And its mythos is productively congruent with the black experience — in New Orleans, in the old Confederacy, and in the Greater Chromatocracy that was (and is) America. Tennessee Williams’s cultural, linguistic, and poetic rhythms mirror and often match African-American rhythms, which are essentially southern in origin. Turns out a black cast might even illuminate corners of the text that white light can’t touch. Consider the brutality of a light-skinned, lace-collar Blanche’s disdain for a dark-skinned, blue-collar Stanley: “There’s even something — sub-human — something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something — ape-like about him.” When Blanche urges sister Stella (a game, if miscast, Daphne Rubin-Vega), “Don’t hang back with the brutes!” certain jagged truths about race and class are briefly written in lightning: Tenn would’ve giggled with glee. An electric shiver runs through the audience when a neighbor warns caterwauling Stanley to desist or risk another encounter with the police, who’ll “turn the fire hose on you, same as the last time.” And when Blanche, who pointedly claims her family is “French ... by extraction” (with Parker surgically inserting just the tiniest pause for enormous effect), suggests to Stella, “Maybe [Stanley is] what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve,” the sexual exoticism of Streetcar has a new throb to it. The oh-so-southern ancestral confabulation, the bloodline obsession, the ever-bright and always-imaginary line between the “common” and the “fine” — these are not white matters or black matters. But occasionally, a change in contrast can bring them into better focus for audiences from one end of the great racial grayscale to the other.
None of this would work, of course, if Mann’s swift, solid, and (beyond the aforementioned) conceptually unadventurous production didn’t fire on all cylinders. But it does, and if some aspects seem rushed, cursory, and under-explored (Wood Harris is a winning but somewhat one-note Mitch), others are delivered quick and hard as body blows. Underwood is a focused and fierce Stanley, referencing none of the sly, smoldering Brandovian diffidence of old, choosing instead to foreground his inner-violence at every turn. This approach has its hazards: Underwood enters too many scenes with his jaw already set and his fists already cocked, and sometimes we’re pleading with him to simmer down, keep his powder dry. But he’s also vastly charismatic, his timing is sharp, and his quick energy amplifies Stanley’s own vulnerabilities, his caged desperation. Blanche isn’t the only broken bird at 632 Elysian Fields.
But she is the highlight. Parker — a criminally underutilized actress best known for Boogie Nights and Showtime’s Soul Food — is as rich and fulsome and fragmented a Blanche as has been undertaken by an American actress in recent memory. She dances on the fine glittering sand of Williams’s language with treacherous delicacy and ever-beckoning danger. Her large, lovely, ethereal eyes pulse with fury, even when there’s spun-honey on her tongue. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but her soul’s a-boil. Parker is a clinic in Blanche, a disciplined and fairly canonical interpreter of a great American archetype. There’s nothing truly revisionist about her performance. Nor about this Streetcar (beyond a few targeted excisions of Stanley’s “Polack” heritage). So let’s leave the knee-jerk originalism to the robed trogs and retrograde sophists on the Supreme Court and keep it out of our theaters. Well, my stars, look at that! Seems I just discovered the limits of my tolerance. Must remember now: Not everyone has the same Belle Reve.
A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at the Broadhurst Theater through July 22.