Two trajectories determine Benedict Andrews’ in-the-round production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”: the tragic arc of Gillian Anderson’s remarkably vivid Blanche, and that of the near-permanently revolving set. The latter creates a striking metaphor for Blanche’s whirling state of mind, but as it slowly wheels around, you sense the two are somewhat at war. Although the movement’s centrifugal force spins Blanche’s thoughts outward, what’s missing is centripetal energy, the inward force that would focus audiences on dramatic details. A great production makes audiences feel complicit in Blanche’s story; here, we’re merely impressed voyeurs.
Ever since Hitchcock chased Cary Grant with a cropduster in “North by Northwest,” directors have been attempting claustrophobia in wide-open spaces. Andrews is no exception. Set designer Magda Willi’s cramped Elysian Fields apartment is a long, steel rectangle of an open set with no walls, bare bulbs and minimal furniture, almost all of which is entirely white. A flimsy curtain, as is traditional, separates the rooms, but tradition stops right there.
Out go the expected period details and in comes a contemporary setting complete with costumes whose retro styling evokes the mid-20th century, when the play was written. Into all this steps Anderson’s fragile but confident Blanche, and from the moment she seizes on the alcohol and announces that she’s got to keep hold of herself, the set begins to move.
In theory, the slow turning of the set allows no one to find themself in a bad seat. In practice, it often means characters at either end of the set drift frustratingly out of focus. To counteract that, the actors need vocal weight to command the space, which is where Anderson — and particularly Ben Foster, otherwise effectively brutish as Stanley — come up short. In only his second listed stage role, Foster has a well-built body covered in tattoos, making him completely believable as a thuggish ex-Army type. But whenever he’s under pressure, his voice tightens, and when he’s at his most dominant physically, he sounds weak.
The secret of the play is that the least showy role, the tentative Mitch, is a gift for a good actor. Corey Johnson clearly knows that, and is particularly fine, shambling about as if carrying too much weight, at home at the poker games and just childlike enough to be pitiful without slipping into mawkishness.
The relationship between Blanche’s sister, Stella (Vanessa Kirby), and neighbor Eunice (Clare Burt) is unusually well drawn — thanks to the energy of Andrews’ direction, their friendship feels properly lived-in — but until the fail-safe upset of the final sequence of events, this Stella and Blanche seem remote from one another, more well-disposed cousins than sisters.
That’s partly because of the directorial decision to allow Anderson to display so many elements of the character. It’s a hugely impressive performance that begins with the actress birdlike and teetering in on high heels; this Blanche is as determined as she is fragile, and for the next three-and-a-half hours she seesaws between those two states. But encouraging Anderson to let everyone see the heightened nature of Blanche’s sexual longing — i.e., turning the subtext into text — makes Stella look foolishly blind.
Similar overstatement is present elsewhere, most notably in the music. There’s moody sax in the writing, but the lengthy transitions are heavily self-conscious thanks to modish blasts of heavy rock guitar or snatches of ’50s vocalists or Chris Issak’s cliched croon from “Wicked Game” (which, coming hard on the heels of her capitulation to Mitch — “Sometime’s — there’s God — so quickly” — actually deflates the preceding scene).
The oddest element of Andrews’ production, following his more radical and exciting staging of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” is its stylistic inconsistency. It winningly inhabits a world of heightened emotion and sexuality not out of place in German theater (where Andrews often works), yet when it comes to actual bodies and sex, Stanley keeps his underwear on when changing into the famous silk pajamas, and Blanche is clothed in the onstage bath. Such primness is out of kilter with both play and production.
The show’s intensity has won it rave local reviews across the board, but the physical requirements of the staging will create problems for producers seeking to transfer it. The worldwide NT Live screenings (set for Sept. 16) may be the ideal way to see it. Relieved of the distractions of the turntable, audiences can feast in close-up on the strengths of Anderson’s minutely calibrated performance.