"Me and the DuBois have different notions," says Blair Underwood's uncommonly desirable Stanley in director Emily Mann's accessible, enjoyable and — on occasion — revealing new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams'"A Streetcar Named Desire." You might remember Stanley's portentous line as "The Kowalskis and the DuBois have different notions," spoken before two flailing members of the fading Southern aristocracy are both "pulled down off them columns" by a crudely sexual version of William Tecumseh Sherman. But while pins are still toppled, this version of the show, which features three performers of color in pivotal roles, including a Stella played by Daphne Rubin-Vegaand a Blanche played by Nicole Ari Parker, excises all loose talk of Polacks.
Those changes will be too much for some; I overheard someone spitting rhetorical nails at the Saturday matinee. I could not differ more. "Streetcar" is set in the singularly spiced gumbo of New Orleans. It's hardly out of whack to imagine a white Eunice and Steve (Amelia Campbell and Matthew Saldivar) renting out two lower rooms to a nonwhite Stella and Stanley. And although Mann's jazz-fueled picture of the world outside is atypically zesty (music is by Terence Blanchard), it feels wholly in keeping with Williams' fevered milieu. In Act 2 of Mann's production, shrewdly designed by Eugene Lee with a careful eye to the right balance of the familiar and the new, a New Orleans-style funeral goes by. The jazzy procession is mocked mercilessly by Stanley at its rear. And when, in an echo of that moment, they carry off the broken Blanche at the end, she follows the same sad trajectory, only without the spring in her step and with Stanley, her symbolic killer, now buried in his poker game.
But the main reason Mann's approach works is that Williams was writing about the temporal ebbs and flows of class and wealth, the appeal of fantasy and the pull to the bottom of raw sexual desire. Those themes are hardly race-bound. Nor should Williams' poetry be the province of white actors; at this juncture, this iconic American play should and can, like Shakespeare's masterworks, stand up to multiple styles and conceits. Mann is subtle — the textual changes are all very minor — but you see how well the text works with the power hierarchy of skin tone in the African-American community. When Parker's Blanche claims to be French, you can read the how and why on her face, even as her European pretensions are now not just delusional but also a betrayal of her historical self.
Neither Underwood nor Parker are experienced stage actors. Parker's Blanche, rhetorically defensive and homogenous throughout here, does not have the nuances and flourishes of the great portrayals, nor does Underwood, whose rage is overly contained, have the menace and complexity of the most formidable Stanleys. But Rubin-Vega succeeds admirably in one crucial, oft-overlooked aspect of this show, which is to show us how much Stella loves her sister. And the Chicago-born Wood Harris, who is best known for his work as Avon Barksdale on "The Wire," uses his huge frame to forge a likable, neatly presented, uncertain Mitch, who crumples all over Blanche in the characters' final scene together, here as suddenly moving as I've seen it played.
But Mann's central achievement is the play's demonstrably close relationship with its mostly African-American audience, long underserved on Broadway and tightly involved here with the characters' human trajectories, constantly wrestling the production toward the present, the realistic and even the hopeful.
Surely, no Stanley who removed his shirt on stage got the response that Underwood enjoys at the Broadhurst Theatre, where few in the house need the play's famous lighting to understand how such a chest can make a girl do whatever its owner wants.
"A Streetcar Named Desire" plays on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. Call 212-259-6200 or visit streetcaronbroadway.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye