A Streetcar Named Desire

Those who missed Glenn Close's momentous performance as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" now have a second chance: Her extravagantly self-dramatizing and domineering Blanche DuBois in Trevor Nunn's Royal National Theater revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" is cut from the same cloth.

Those who missed Glenn Close’s momentous performance as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” now have a second chance: Her extravagantly self-dramatizing and domineering Blanche DuBois in Trevor Nunn’s Royal National Theater revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is cut from the same cloth.

Whether that strikes you as appropriate for the American theater’s defining female role may depend upon your willingness to do without a Blanche who shimmers and glows, to co-opt just two of the qualities that — Tennessee Williams’ text tells us — “soft people” must possess. But then there’s nothing remotely soft about Close’s robust, theatrically florid, scarcely vulnerable approach toward a woman riding her own streetcar toward despair.

Trading in a deluxe Hollywood manse for shabby New Orleans digs, Close in her London theater debut is still trafficking in the big gesture (complete at one point with a Norma-style fur) and an outsized, wide-eyed style of playing that threatens to make a near parody of Blanche. Few will deny she’s giving the role her all, but many may be left wondering whether this “all” is the right one.

As skillful a stage actress as the American theater has (my acquaintanceship with her theater work dates back to a Yelena in a Yale Repertory “Uncle Vanya” some two decades ago), Close is by no means an obvious Blanche — Amanda Wingfield and “Sweet Bird of Youth’s” Princess, yes, but the irreparably scarred fantasist Blanche? After all, hasn’t Close built a career out of a firm-jawed resilience and guile, coupled with a notable comic gift?

Appearing under Nunn’s direction as Norma Desmond, Close cut a supreme portrait of a silver-screen monstre sacre refusing to be brought low, at least in her own mind and for as long as the young Joe Gillis remained on the loose in her luxuriously appointed lair. Her performance was at once ripely exuberant and deeply haunting, whereas her Blanche, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the careful, even fussy attention to detail in it, settles too often simply for camp.

Close deserves praise, in a way, for unearthing an unexpectedly comic component to Blanche’s elaborate self-deceptions. Speaking of herself as someone “over 30,” the actress gets a laugh while pausing before the age (not least because Close surely knows as well as anyone that she is a quarter-century older than the role as written). Earlier, staring at the Kowalskis’ phone as if it were some alien being, Close doesn’t present a Blanche who is poignantly out of step with an environment at once seductive and lethal. Instead, she plays the comedy in the divide between Blanche’s much-trumpeted gentility and the seediness of a milieu that no amount of lemon Cokes, paper lanterns and jasmine scents can improve. It’s as if this Blanche has cast herself as the lead in some absurdist funhouse — and why not, insofar as Nunn’s teeming stage (the opening tableau recalls the Catfish Row of Nunn’s definitive “Porgy and Bess”) rather luridly turns into precisely that in a second-act madness-induced phantasmagoria that isn’t exactly the subtlest piece of stagecraft.

What’s missing is that crucial sense of a Blanche waiting to snap. Tottering in tentative high heels onto Bunny Christie’s impressively high if utterly unclaustrophobic set, this figure in white isn’t so much a faded, self-falsifying woman on the run from her own past as she is a panicky cartoon, an impression not helped by the Dame Edna-style glasses that Close now and again puts on. And whereas “Streetcar” will forever be best known for the fatal attraction that ought to propel it between Blanche and her destroyer-lover Stanley (Iain Glen), one can’t help but recall that other “Fatal Attraction” in the climactic tussle between the bottle-wielding old-world wannabe Blanche and her quintessentially American nemesis, Stanley.

Britain, to be fair, doesn’t breed natural Stanleys, and the lean, patrician-looking Glen, though physically cast totally against the Brando grain, goes considerably further in the role than Toby Stephens did opposite Jessica Lange in the same play on the West End five years ago. (That production boasted a first-rate Stella in Imogen Stubbs, Nunn’s wife.) But the fact remains that Glen — for all his full-throated braying and thumb-in-the-jeans swagger — can’t act that incipient sexual threat that you either have or you don’t. And without a sensual Blanche to react off of, their erotically fueled eleventh-hour date with destiny feels sadly pro forma.

As a result, the production lands by default on its secondary leads, who are more than up to the task. Robert Pastorelli’s Mitch is a sweet-natured lug who reacts to the news of Blanche’s squalid sexual history with the flickering eyes of an innocent betrayed. And in an absolutely sensational National Theater debut, Australian actress Essie Davis pretty much repositions “Streetcar” as Stella’s play. Torn between an abusive husband whom she clearly loves and a damaged sister whom she tries to protect but can’t, her Stella is the truly harrowing and riven heroine of a most peculiar “Streetcar” that seems to have gotten derailed well before it reached desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Royal National Theater/Lyttelton; 898 seats; £33 $51.50 top

  • Production: A Royal National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Trevor Nunn.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Paul Pyant; fights, Malcolm Ranson; sound, Paul Groothuis; music supervisor/arranger, Neil McArthur. Opened, reviewed Oct. 8, 2002. Running time: 3 HOURS.
  • Cast: Blanche DuBois - Glenn Close Stanley Kowalski - Iain Glen Stella Kowalski - Essie Davis Harold Mitchell (Mitch) - Robert Pastorelli Steve Hubbel - Sam Douglas Eunice Hubbel - Sue Kelvin <b>With:</b> Miquel Brown, Andrew Westfield, Jack Pierce, George Eggay, Gary Oliver, Jonathan Forbes, Valerie Farr, Katherine Reilly, William Hoyland, Joanne Hole, Billie Baker.