Blanche Hysterias

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire are perhaps the most well-known American plays in the modern theatrical repertoire. Revivals of these three Tennessee Williams classics are frequent and often noteworthy, as big stars are attracted to the signature parts at the center of these meaty dramas.

The problem with these plays is that they are so familiar, and their southern idiom so particular, that even good performances by talented actors can feel clichéd — or worse, feel like self-parody.

Until last month, I have never seen an entirely successful production of any of these three plays. The staging that broke this streak was Liv Ullmann's Sydney Theatre Company production of Streetcar starring Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois.

Seen in a short run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (which had people paying thousands of dollars for scalped tickets) Ullmann's stark, unsentimental staging allowed audiences to see Williams' 1947 drama as realistic tragedy, rather than a big, important period piece, as it is too often staged.

streetcar8.jpgBlanchett was jittery, elegant, frustrating and fractured. Many actresses — good ones — play Blanche Dubois as a woman completely unaware of society's boundaries; Blanchett plays her as someone deeply aware of what's right and what's wrong, she's just unable to control her impulses. There's a wonderful moment early in the play, where Blanche pours herself a drink. The script says "she carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink;" but Blanchett and Ullmann have Blanche replace the bottle, wash out the glass, and put it back exactly where it was on the shelf, as if nothing had ever happened. This small moment is what Blanche is trying to do with her whole life. Blanchett's Blanche is aware of her deceptions, and they've become as instinctual as breathing.

streetcar9.jpgThis production also benefited from a Stanley who managed to hold his own against the memories of Marlon Brando. Joel Edgerton provided brute force, charm, pigheadedness, and intense focus to the iconic part. I've seen Streetcars with Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson, even the late Natasha Richardson (opposite John C. Reilly's Stanley) — none matched the intensity of these two Australian actors.

Ultimately though, I think what separates this Streetcar from so many others, is Ullmann's direction. Known best for her performances in Ingmar Bergman's films, Ullmann is also a veteran of the stage and her blocking felt uncluttered, natural yet always precise — her handling of Stanley and Blanche's "date" in Scene 10 was revelatory.

There's talk that producers want to bring Blanchett to Broadway. It would be the ninth Broadway revival of Streetcar and the first directed by a woman. Ms. Ullmann's (and Ms. Blanchett's) Streetcar is essential viewing and worth every effort to see it, if it rolls around again.

mendacity.jpgThat old problem of even good Tennessee Williams' performances sounding like parody was brought home last week when I saw a local troupe's staging of The Glass Mendacity, an Airplane! -style spoof of the three Williams' standards I mentioned at the top of the show. Maureen Morley and Tom Willmorth's farce places the characters from all three Williams plays into Belle Reve and has them squabbling over Big Daddy's fortune. The one genuine comic choice is having the character of Brick played not by an actor, but by a mannequin in a neck brace and bathrobe. (This mannequin, it must be said, is significantly more animated than Jason Patrick's Brick in a recent Broadway revival).

There are enough laughs to fill a five-minute sketch in Andrew Crusse's good-natured production, but the show is slowly paced and over two hours long. Williams' moss-covered dialogue and hothouse scenarios have always been an easy target, the problem with this parody isn't that it's too over-the-top; but rather, that isn't hysterical enough.

The Glass Mendacity runs through January 30 at the Hayworth Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Tim Richards and Cate Blanchette in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti