Cate Blanchett begins and ends her slow-burning performance as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” pinned in a spotlight. At first, she cowers, frail and terrified upon arrival in an unwelcoming environment; later, she stretches her willowy body into the light, utterly broken yet perhaps strangely liberated. For a woman who has clung so desperately to the forgiving artifice of a paper lantern rather than face the harsh truth of a naked bulb, the radical shift in attitude underscores the cruel irony that her defeat may also be a release. However, such illumination comes only intermittently during the three intervening hours of Liv Ullmann’s inconsistent production.
Like Blanchett’s last appearance at BAM in 2006 with “Hedda Gabler,” this production comes via Sydney Theater Company, which the actress now heads with her playwright husband Andrew Upton. Following a hit D.C. engagement last month, the three-week Brooklyn run was an instant sellout, and audiences coming to see the screen star will be not be unimpressed by her stage chops. The range and exacting control of Blanchett’s vocal expressivity, in particular, are formidable, while her physical disintegration, as haunted Blanche unravels, is no less commanding.
But the dazzling technique of the lead and solid support from key players around her can’t disguise the fact that much of the deeper emotional texture of Tennessee Williams’ great tragedy is muted. There are moments of the playwright’s poetic realism — in which characters are revealed not as they project themselves, but as they truly are — but the action more often swings between naturalistic torpor and overwrought melodrama, causing dull patches especially in the protracted first act.
As much as the central dynamic between delusional Blanche and her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Joel Edgerton), Ullmann seems fascinated by the complexities and contradictions of husband and wife. This yields a gritty examination of the relationship between Stanley and Blanche’s sister, Stella (Robin McLeavy), with all its exultant highs and anguished lows. That union is echoed by the squalling explosions and amorous reconciliations of upstairs neighbors, the Hubbells (Mandy McElhinney and Michael Denkha).
Ralph Myers’ set provides a gruesome two-room apartment in vomit-pink for the Kowalskis, spread out beneath a stark gray exterior wall with a window into the Hubbells’ home, affording cinematic glimpses into their private world. In place of the usual evocative New Orleans ironwork is a single fire escape. These design choices tighten the focus on the central characters, relegating French Quarter atmosphere to the overworked audio department. But they create a slight imbalance. Thoughts of one of Ullmann’s own tour-de-force roles make this play at times like “Scenes From a Marriage,” with Blanche as the intruder.
Blanchett initially is at her best in the actress side of Blanche, with vanity and fear battling for control in her jittery performance. She presents herself to Stella’s husband and friends as a high-strung creature of delicacy and refinement, hitting the booze to quiet her nerves and using any available distraction to hide the fact that she’s a soiled Southern belle who has run out of luck.
“I don’t want realism. I want magic,” moans Blanche, in one of many effective moments when Blanchett drops her voice to an agonized lower register as the character is confronted by an uncomfortable truth.
The humor that runs in a rich, campy vein alongside Williams’ lyrical flourishes is more erratically served. Blanchett gets the laughs, but often she either milks them or glides over choice dialogue too neurotically to harness the wit.
It’s with the character’s key monologues that the depths beneath the gilded surface come into view. Confessing her role in her young husband’s suicide years earlier, Blanche unleashes the demons in her head that begin pushing her over the edge. The retreat of paramour Mitch (Tim Richards), who has bought Blanche’s fabricated image until he’s rudely awakened by Stanley, precipitates that descent. And her surrender to Stanley — bluntly underlined in a post-coital tableau — makes it irreversible.
Despite several production missteps — an encounter with a young collector (Morgan David Jones) that lurches into drag-queeny grotesqueness; a horror-movie cacophony of clanging trolleys that crescendos with the rape — the power of Blanchett’s steady transformation is undeniable. She crumbles before our eyes from carefully put-together primness into a bloodless, drunken mess, ravaged by time, experience and lack of understanding.
In a performance indebted to the defining mold of Marlon Brando, muscle-bound Edgerton maintains the intensity throughout, more than delivering on the sexual menace while feeding Stanley’s insecurities with an infantile, resentful streak.
McLeavy’s Stella is full of natural warmth and earthy sensuality; it’s no stretch to understand the strength of this well-raised woman’s connection to animalistic Stanley. She’s as much in denial about her husband’s true nature as she is about her sister’s, but this Stella is no fool, and her increasingly conflicted path through the second-act turmoil is among the most touching impressions here.
Yet, while it ignites more frequently as Blanche inches closer to her sad fate, the production and its performances seem more studied than deeply felt. This “Streetcar” hits most of the correct marks along the route, but a work that should be shattering instead unfolds at an emotional distance, for too long failing to locate the play’s wounded heart.