Although there's much to praise in the Young Vic-Joshua Andrews co-production of Tennessee Wiliams's superb A Street Car Named Desire, now transported to St. Ann's Warehouse, the laurels go mostly to the cast. About other prominent aspects, there's much to question.
Indeed, the off-kilter impression begins not when the play, directed with obvious confusion by Benedict Andrews, begins. It commences as the patrons enter to be seated on four sides and get a lengthy gander at the set. (FYI: The Young Vic is constructed as theater-in-the-round.)
What patrons see, designed by Magda Willi to conjure the dilapidated Elysian Fields enclave in late 1940s New Orleans, is a large steel frame housing a pristine, predominantly white abode looking not unlike a luxury studio in a contemporary Upper East Side Manhattan high-rise.
It could be more than one ticket buyer eyed the minimalist flat and thought, "I wish I could find a place like that." Certainly, when Blanche DuBois (Gillian Anderson) arrives to visit married younger sister Stella DuBois Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) and starts deriding the cozy home, spectators have to be wondering why she's carrying on so. And say, what's that cordless landline telephone doing there. Huh? No computer?!
Ticket buyers also have to be wondering about Blanche's immaculate appearance. She's gussied up in a tailored suit of the sort many workingwomen might be wearing to Madison Avenue offices this spring. (Victoria Behr is the costume designer.) Blanche surely doesn't look like someone who, as Williams stipulates, has been traveling all day in sweltering heat and has alighted that streetcar named Desire pretty much having slid down her tether nearly to its end but is still able to fall back on her long-mastered, desperate survival tactics.
The misconception affects Blanche's earlier scenes as Anderson plays them. Announcing to Stella that their beloved Belle Reve home has been lost, she's aggressively argumentative about the sad development rather than broken and defensive in her wily manner. This goes some way towards making the compulsively dissembling, self-absorbed Blanche into someone even more unsympathetic to audience members than she should be.
Before learning further about the performances, however, readers need to be alerted that the set in the round goes literally round. During the first act it moves clockwise, mostly slowly but sometimes more quickly as tension builds. In the second act, it starts going counter-clockwise--as if attempting to reverse the events of the first act. The clinical merry-go-round eventually goes clockwise again and then counter-clockwise and so on and so forth.
As it rotates, everyone watching gets to see or not see the actors' fronts or backs, as, for instance, Stella sits on the bathroom toilet while having a chat with Blanche. This, by the way, doesn't appear to be one of Wiliams's stage directions, whereas Blanche crooning "It's Only a Paper Moon" (which is about the appeal of illusion, of course) is definitely stipulated by the playwright. Actually, this Blanche honks the old standard.
Incidentally, the question during the toilet scene becomes, Is Blanche the kind of person who gabs casually with someone, even a sister, who's responding to nature's call? No, the showily fussy Blanche isn't that kind. Lacking any other recourse, she clings tenaciously to accepted manners.
As for songs provided, Williams doesn't request "You Always Hurt the One You Love," which sound designer Paul Arditti (at Andrews's command?) pipes in when the proceedings get underway. That's hardly the most off-putting aural insertion. Between scenes Arditti forces clashing, crashing, deafening music. Even worse, when Blanche is recalling the past and falling prey to it, he floats in eerily cliché music to let viewers who might be slow on the uptake know just how bonkers she's becoming.
Luckily, the cast members, also under Andrews's direction, of course, behave for the most part as if they're in circumstances not compromised by the physical attributes provided here. The more Anderson moves into the action the more she relates--or properly loses the ability to relate--to the others. She's extremely good at Blanche's flirtations, a mixture of traditional Southern coquettishness and inborn calculation. She also knows how to pull off a drunk scene. Then, when all Blanche's marbles have rolled away, she real rolls.
It may be that no other actor has to confront the memory of a previous performance than an actor succeeding Marlon Brando as the brutish but unfailingly perceptive Stanley. The physically compact, muscular Foster stands up to it solidly. Tattooed according to today's ink esthetics, he's Stanley as not only intuitively smart but noticeably intelligent. That he puts up with Blanche as long as he does becomes a credit to him, although this Stanley's rape is no more acceptable than Williams would allow. "She's been asking for it" remains a misguided rationale.
Kirby's blond Stella is appealing and absolutely right for its being so natural. She's fallen in love with a man she knows is different from the men she was raised to admire, but she understands that those class differences are only superficial. Williams has written her as a battered wife, but whether she recognizes the situation or how long it will take her to do something about it is up in the air. Kirby's Stella is a woman weighing the pros and cons and continuing to favor the pros.
Corey Johnson is an immensely likable Mitch. He confidently depicts Mitch's love for his mother and his deference to Blanche until he learns the truth she's hidden about herself. (In one of Williams's most trenchant lines Blanche insists that she only tells "what ought to be the truth.") Johnson blends the momma's boy and the man's man elements well. Also making strong impressions are Sarah-Jane Potts and Mark Letheren as the upstairs battling Eunice and Steve Hubbell. Lachele Carl is the Mexican Woman who walks around the revolving set from time to time symbolizing something or other.
The argument is being made that modernizing A Streetcar Named Desire is a perfectly reasonable approach to new productions. That may be, but if so, the modernizing displayed here isn't the right modernizing. On the other hand, Andrews makes certain that the last line is, as Williams wrote it, the devastating poker statement: "This game is seven-card stud"--with that final "stud" left hanging in the torpid air as Blanche blank-eyed walks away on the arm of a calming institute doctor. Bravo for that.