The bar for a Streetcar Named Desire revival is high: The play feels like settled law, and unless you’re a brilliant BDSM revisionist like Ivo van Hove, the iconography feels constraining, the possibilities for reinvention limited. Mark Rucker’s hurtling yet slightly staid production at Yale Rep isn’t a new vision of Streetcar at all, but an attempt to re-create, blockily and boxily, a bygone vision. Teeming urban chaos erupts in the form of shapeless, earsplitting jazz. When Stella (Detroit’s Sarah Sokolovic) and Stanley (True Blood beefcake Joe Manganiello) make the earth move, Elysian Fields actually moves. And Rene Augesen’s meticulously wrought Blanche — fine as old lace and just as prone to disintegration — is as canonical a version as you’re likely to find.
Canonical, but not typical: The garden-variety, community-theater Blanche whom too many of us grew up with is a toppling fruit-trifle of bad drawling and drag-show camp. Augesen is restrained, almost coy; it’s a fascinating, layered performance, but also, occasionally, a tentative and half-aspirated one. (Some of Blanche’s signature lines get swallowed, in an attempt to part them from their Bartlett’s-ness.) It makes her an asymmetric match with Manganiello, who reads as a very angry, very funny He-man figurine. He’s got great timing, but it’s a fighter’s timing. All fury and danger, Manganiello sells Stanley’s insecurity and bitterness, but his full-tilt thuggishness obscures the charm, the magnetism, and — improbably for a guy who looks like he does — the sex. He and Augesen reach a sort of deadlock early on, and the balance of terror doesn’t evolve much. (I always said I’d never type the phrase “the rape falls flat,” but whoops, looks like I just did.) To compensate, Rucker ups the tempo — sometimes to the point of risking key moments. (Praise to him, though — and to April Matthis for her superb Eunice — for making the supporting roles crackle.)
Luckily, in comes the extraordinary Sarah Sokolovic to break the stalemate. Sokolovic’s one of those rare actresses who keeps her secrets onstage. She brings just the tiniest hint of contemporary kink to Stella, just a flash of heat lightning in those enormous eyes that promises something extravagant and obscure, but beg for nothing. She may be my favorite Stella so far — Stella for star, indeed.