One of the seminal collision courses of the American theater gets derailed in the new Gate Theater of Dublin production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The obvious draw of director Robin Lefevre’s staging is the visiting luster of Frances McDormand as Blanche, a casting coup guaranteed to sell out an eight-week run through June 27. But one means no slight to this terrific actress to point out that she’s no more naturally a Blanche than her vaguely paunchy, in no way threatening or alluring Irish colleague Liam Cunningham is a Stanley. While McDormand might make a top-drawer Nora, Masha or Hedda, this time around she’s pure and simply miscast, and joins Liam Neeson’s Oscar Wilde (in “The Judas Kiss”) as the second ill-advised stage pairing of late of star and role.
A decade ago, McDormand got a best actress Tony nomination for playing Stella alongside Blythe Danner’s Blanche in a Circle in the Square revival of Williams’ 1947 play. That role seems a far more logical fit, since it taps into the unadulterated strength that the actress innately projects. (Has anyone ever strutted more deliciously toward the Oscar podium?) It was the savvy cloaked in good cheer that made her Oscar-winning Marge in “Fargo” so memorable, and that same quality, I’m afraid, quite undoes her as Blanche. For all the fear and trembling in the text, this Blanche never unravels; McDormand is too self-aware to play a Williams heroine whose instinctual wiliness isn’t enough to keep her from being blinded — not to mention destroyed — by that metaphoric light of truth.
It’s one thing to be cast against type; it’s another not to inhabit the part, which is the trap fallen into virtually across the board by the cast of a production that might almost qualify as revisionist if it weren’t so off-base. McDormand’s initial cool is of a piece with a physical design (by American Allen Moyer) that doesn’t generate much atmospheric heat as Blanche sweeps into her sister and brother-in-law’s New Orleans apartment, bringing enough clothes — the costumes are courtesy of another American, Michael Krass — to launch a Mardi Gras parade. At first, her crispness extends even to her enunciation — “attitude” is given a full three syllables — and she’s wryly funny playing “I spy” with booze she pretends not to need.
But it isn’t until meeting Stanley, and her softly flirty “I’m Blanche,” that McDormand exhibits any of the softness crucial to Williams’ most neurasthenic heroine. Even then, asking Stanley to zip up a dress, this Blanche seems uneasy with the seductive demands of the role. McDormand gets laughs in the part that aren’t often heard, right up to her final debased exit as she snaps at the female orderly come to take her away. (Another effective line, particularly in Dublin: “Polish — they’re like Irish, aren’t they, only not so highbrow?”) But where’s the Blanche who retreats tremulously into shadows and illusions on the path to collapse? That vulnerable, easily crushed woman with a past has been replaced by a flinty, low-voiced pragmatist: In avoiding cliche, McDormand has also sidestepped the part.
Still, one can hardly blame her for attempting the kind of stretch that leaves McDormand’s fellow actors at the starting-gate. Donna Dent has a fragility that could perhaps be put one day toward a decent Blanche, but her Stella is of no special interest beyond suggesting — in Stella’s talk of being “sorta thrilled” by Stanley’s violent outbursts — unexpected affinities to the Julie Jordan of “Carousel,” written two years prior to this play. That fine actor John Kavanagh (he was Joxer in the Gate’s much-acclaimed “Juno and the Paycock”) makes an unusually creepy, gravelly Mitch, complete with an accent of no discernible origin. Indeed, it’s a measure of the infelicitous casting that Dublin-based American Regina Ford, glimpsed at the outset in a tiny role, seems easily the most comfortable performer on the gently raked stage.
Cunningham, too, has been good in other things (most recently London’s “Herbal Bed”), but he exists at so many removes from Stanley that one of the theater’s most galvanic creations comes across as a sneering wiseacre whose celebrated “date from the beginning” with Blanche seems far from inevitable. Where one ought to feel a sexual pull between Stanley and the hunted, haunted Blanche, this Stanley replaces brutish charisma with mere sarcasm. If McDormand was a more appropriate Stella, Cunningham would be a far more logical Mitch.
Lefevre’s exemplary handling of the recent London cast of Brian Friel’s problematic “Give Me Your Answer, Do!” suggests that the wayward performances here may have been part of a larger plan to reinvent a tempestuous American classic in tamer, more pragmatic European terms. But why ask a searing American classic merely to simmer on the stage when so many generations of theatergoers (not to mention other countries’ audiences) haven’t ever felt its heat? The play’s lustful title, after all, promises a highly charged journey which on this occasion goes down the wrong track.