Civic Rep’s program notes read: “While the playwright suggests a specific time and place for the story, we have chosen to create a world that is in the past, but timeless, and a place that could be anywhere. We have chosen not to use Southern dialects for that reason.”
Can Tennessee Williams’ great warhorse, redolent with Southern defeat and decay, endure the loss of such specificity? Director L. Zane Jones seems to think so, hence the gamble on a motley production that, while not devoid of charm, fails to connect the dots of the play with a sense of tragic inevitability or heft. The interpretation feels oddly weightless—ungrounded in space and time—despite the formidable rantings of a very enjoyable Stanley.
Angie Harrison’s faded, brick-walled railroad apartment set could easily be imagined as hipster Seattle. Frail and lovely, Blanche (Robin Jones) arrives in dainty vintage togs with her scuffed trunk of sartorial “tools” for nabbing a man who might save her from moral and financial ruin. Sister Stella (Kelli Mohrbacher) confusingly sports a tattoo, long, streaky blond highlights, and ’50s-style cat-eye glasses. Stanley (a terrific David Nail) looks pure Ballard: L-shaped sideburns, bowling shirt, and pate-stubble. Their dialects seem random—Jackie O, San Fernando Valley, and Queens, respectively. I don’t mind the latter, which does capture Stanley’s primal urges and smug humor, but somehow Blanche just isn’t Blanche without her distinctly Southern cadences. Her words don’t cast their bayou-inflected spell.
But the bigger problem is an abiding tentativeness among the central cast. They often seem to avoid one another’s gaze, rather than locking into the moment. Strangely, the characters on the margins—neighbors, friends, even Blanche’s suitor Mitch, played by Sam Read—defy this characterization, providing welcome intensity and directness in the otherwise emotionally evasive atmosphere.
Jones’ beauty compensates to some degree for the missing music of language. And her reminiscences are touching, aided by the gentle lighting and soundscapes (created by Lindsay Smith and Andy Swan). Still, Nail’s big-throated, Archie Bunker-like Stanley is the performance I’ll remember. He seems to sniff every room he enters and every person he evaluates, trusting that most basic sense over the eyes’ and ears’ vulnerability to seduction. Would that the ensemble’s emotional dynamics were as exacting as his nose . . .
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE New City Theatre, 1410 18th Ave., 800-838-3006, brownpapertickets.com. $10–$15. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Jan. 25.