A Different Desire

Tennessee Williams' Streetcar comes to a stop at the Alley

When a venerable professor I studied playwrighting under in college described what it was like to be at New York's Barrymore Theatre on the night of December 3, 1947, he would talk as much about what happened in the audience as he would about what happened on the stage:

A Streetcar Named Desire (which the Alley is currently reviving) opened that night, and while it was clear to the audience that the newly emergent playwright Tennessee Williams wanted their sympathies to be with Blanche DuBois, the faded Southern belle of a lost soul who cries, "I don't want realism. I want magic!" it was also clear to them that the newly emergent actor Marlon Brando wanted their sympathies to be with Stanley Kowalski, the hulking brute he portrayed. There was nervous excitement in the audience that night, and the realization that theater history was being made, not only because of what Williams had created in Blanche, but also because of what Brando had created in Stanley. The sensitive heroine and the sensitive actor: whom, the audience wondered, should they value most?

The audience felt for Blanche, but they rooted for Brando's Stanley, all the while knowing that, as written, he was a villain. A villain with a certain manly charm, maybe, but a villain nonetheless. While the audience understood Williams' belief that it's the "tenderer feelings" that people must cling to if humanity is to progress -- as a pleading Blanche asserts to her sister Stella, who forsook their refinement to marry the "common" Stanley -- the audience likewise understood the power not simply of Stanley's carnal bestiality, but also (and more so) of Brando's animal magnetism. Brando the brooder, the audience marveled -- and worried -- made Stanley even more compellingly dangerous than he was on the page.

(This is largely why, when it came time for the movie, Williams and director Elia Kazan rewrote the ending, stressing Blanche's declaration, "Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable." In the play, after Stanley rapes Blanche, the final scene ends with Blanche being escorted via "the kindness of strangers" to an insane asylum. Meanwhile, Stella, who has just revealed that she "couldn't believe [Blanche's] story and go on living with Stanley," sobs with "inhuman abandon," wondering just what she has done to her sister, and acting ambivalently toward Stanley's attempts to comfort her. Mostly because of Brando, what the audience took away from those closing moments varied. In the movie, with Brando reprising his role, Stella refuses to go back to Stanley, disdaining, finally, his raw appeal.)

In the Alley production, the audience's allegiance won't be similarly tested. Patrick St. Esprit's Stanley is a fine physical specimen -- when he takes off his shirt, his stomach is so tight that ripples can be detected in the audience as much as in his muscles -- but there's not much else that's likable in the character he creates. But while Williams and Kazan would agree with the thrust of St. Esprit's intentions, they wouldn't be fully satisfied with his execution.

St. Esprit's Stanley is territorial, primitive and unconcealed, all of which establishes him as a force to be reckoned with. But Stanley as Williams wrote him is more like a force of nature; volatile and tactile, he's a potent physical presence who thinks by reacting. St. Esprit is unable to locate what should be throbbing in him, and as a result, key moments lack pulsating life. St. Esprit's Stanley goes through Blanche's clothes trunk with stubborn insistence rather than with an instinctive sense of defending what he intuits is his own inferiority. He throws out an offending radio Stella and Blanche have been listening to as if he's actually upset with them for ruining his poker game, when what he should be doing is betraying how "subhuman" Stanley is. And for all his swaggering, St. Esprit doesn't especially smack of testosterone; while his hunkiness might account for Stella's attraction to him, it neither reinforces how sheer desire binds him to her nor provides the perilous sexual tension that should exist between him and Blanche. "We had this date with each other from the beginning," Stanley seethes as he's about to rape her, but in St. Esprit, we never sense how deadly serious a flirt Stanley can be.

Though St. Esprit's workmanlike performance allows the production to be weighted in Blanche's favor, it's puzzling why the Alley, which prides itself on being a resident acting company, would bring him in in the first place, when one of its own actors is perfect for the role. All virile bearing and coiled emotions, Alex Allen Morris would make an undeniable Stanley. That Morris is African-American would, I think, provide audiences with valuable fodder for debate. But even if one wanted to argue that "colorblind" casting wouldn't work here, and that theoretical casting choices are irrelevant, it's still curious that the Alley is even mounting this very familiar classic. Streetcar was revived on Broadway a few seasons ago; the director's cut of the movie recently played in art houses; a network television version of the Broadway revival was broadcast just a few months ago.

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