Rumor has it that Tennessee Williams used to sit in the back of the theater for performances of his Streetcar Named Desire and laugh hysterically when, in the end, Blanche is escorted out on the arm of a doctor en route to the insane asylum. Following his lead, two Tennessee Williams plays in New York City, the revival of Streetcar at the Broadhurst on Broadway, and the world premiere of his last experimental work, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, at Culture Project, may cause a laugh riot.
The revival of Streetcar, with its African-American cast, follows the successful run of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2008. Director Emily Mann said on opening night that Williams always wanted to see a black cast in this play. The new Streetcar features one of the most brutal Stanleys (Blair Underwood, disrobing frequently to reveal a six-pack) against that fragile force, Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker). Creating this delusional liar, so identified with Vivien Leigh and more recently portrayed by Cate Blanchett and Natascha Richardson, Parker said everything happens to Blanche before the play, offstage, referring to Blanche's early tragedies: marrying a young man whom she later spied in bed with an older man, and who killed himself when she rebuked him as a degenerate, and her subsequent life at a shabby hotel, supported by the kindness of strangers. She brings all this lurid baggage, and she survives. You can break her will, Parker said, and she survives, but not when you break her heart.
Blanche' sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is played sexy, not the usual frump, even when she's pregnant. The women's performances were nominated today for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in the Outer Critics Circle Awards. Lanky Wood Harris plays Mitch, kind of dumb and by no means man enough for Blanche. Mann said Tennessee Williams, like Chekhov, thought his plays were funny, and he added, quoting Tennessee, "Blanche is my funniest character."
If New Orleans provides a noisy, jazzy squalor for this Streetcar, the characters in Masks don't know where they are. Is it a geographic problem, or is the beachy, upscale setting a state of consciousness?
Director David Schweizer took the play's unfinished drafts, left after Williams' death in 1983, and worked out its kinks, weaving threads that echo many great Williams plays: Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Vieux Carré. This abstract play works best if you know the master's opus and love his poetry and one-liners. The play's women are over-the-top. Clarissa "Babe" Foxwood (played by a sublime Shirley Knight) is no Blanche DuBois, but her yearnings go in a similar direction. Funnier than Blanche, Knight goes camp on Babe's fragility. Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (Alison Fraser, a veteran of Charles Busch's hilarious romp The Divine Sister) worries about her developmentally delayed son Playboy (Connor Buckley) being defiled at a lighthouse in exchange for jelly beans. If it doesn't break your heart, it cracks you up.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.