`Streetcar' leaves subtlety far behind

Review: Director Janos Szasz takes a heavy-handed approach to the play.

April 12, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"A Streetcar Named Desire" isn't a subtle play. Its characters aren't subtle. Its plot isn't subtle. Even its title isn't subtle.

But like all of Tennessee Williams' work, it's poetic and needs to be handled with subtlety. Otherwise, it can become one long rant - a roller coaster descent to the nuthouse for poor, deluded Blanche DuBois.

Hungarian director Janos Szasz's overwrought production at Washington's Arena Stage is almost totally devoid of nuance, and the outcome diminishes a great American classic.

To begin with, Szasz has an excessively liberal approach toward textual details. Consider the set. Szasz and designer Csaba Antal have taken the play out of Williams' highly specific New Orleans tenement setting and moved it to a geographically vague gray loft that looks like a cross between an industrial space and a prison. Instead of two cramped rooms, Blanche and her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski occupy a single vast space, obliterating any sense of claustrophobia.

The production opens with a busy, unscripted scene that establishes the poker-playing, devil-may-care atmosphere at the Kowalskis before Blanche's arrival. After this crowd clears out, two identically dressed little girls ascend the central sunken staircase that leads up to the large, in-the-round Fichandler stage. As the girls separate and walk around the set, there's a loud clang, light bulbs explode and large sections of floorboards are jarred out of place. Then, to the strains of a nursery song, the elder girl gestures for the younger to buckle the elder's shoe. Szasz clearly intends to illustrate the domineering relationship between the sisters.

The imagery is about as low-key as Stephen King, and the effect doesn't lessen when Rebecca Nelson's Blanche shows up, bellowing first at the Kowalskis' landlady and then at Stella. Indeed, beyond the bold and often misguided visual interpretation, one of the production's chief problems is that Blanche is such a crazed harridan from the start, it's difficult to feel much of anything for her plight.

This is not to say that Blanche is constantly hysterical. One of Szasz's more intriguing insights is having Blanche start out maniacal and end up considerably more clear-headed, as she realizes she is about to be institutionalized.

But for every fresh insight there are scads of heavy-handed interpolations. For example, far from feeling wracked with guilt and doubt over sending her sister to a mental hospital, Stella literally straps Blanche in a straitjacket. Earlier, when Blanche kisses the newspaper boy, she doesn't merely kiss him, she pulls him toward her with such force, he falls on the floor and she leaps on top of him. And when she recounts her husband's suicide, a spotlighted actor in a white suit puts a gun in his mouth and mimes the act. (Blanche also has a gun in this production.)

Just about the only delicate touches come from David Toney's gentle portrayal of Blanche's momma's-boy beau, Mitch, and, for most of her performance, Mercedes Herrero's portrayal of conciliatory Stella. But there's little passion and no perceptible affection in Stella's relationship with Dan Moran's swaggering Stanley. Smelling his armpits and, in one particularly drunken moment, smashing a beer bottle on his head, Moran manages to out-Brando Brando when it comes to playing what Blanche describes as a subhuman brute.

In theory at least, if a play is truly great, it can stand up to - and be enhanced by - multiple interpretations. (Consider what Shakespeare has been subjected to.) But there's such a thing as taking too many liberties.

Emphasizing the dysfunctional relationship between the sisters over the abusive one between Stella and Stanley, and even altering the setting - something Williams experimented with himself - aren't necessarily bad choices. But overstating the obvious in a play already laden with overstatement is more freight than "Streetcar" can bear.

`A Streetcar Named Desire'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; selected matinees; through May 6

Tickets: $27-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

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