'Streetcar Named Desire': Blair Underwood is a brutally wonderful Stanley on Broadway

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Marlon Brando is so seared in our minds as Stanley Kowalski from "Streetcar Named Desire" that it takes an actor with true presence, a raw intensity and not a little bit of swagger to play him without comparisons to Brando popping up constantly.

Blair Underwood has all of that, and so very much more in the superior production of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece at the Broadhurst Theatre. The play does not have the happier Hollywood ending the 1951 movie has, and that wasn't exactly a day brightener.

Emily Mann's direction reveals Williams' rougher, grittier and far grimmer play. And it is glorious.You will feel as if you need to sit in a dark room and decompress for a while after. Twelve hours after leaving the nearly two-and-a-half hour production, I still feel this way. But if you are very lucky, you will see this limited run.

Though it has been touted as an all-black cast, the leads are African-American and other players are white and Latino. It's more representative of New Orleans, where the play is set, than all white casts. One obvious change from the white productions is Stanley's Polish surname is not used.

From the moment Nicole Ari Parker (TV's "Soul Food") enters Elysian Fields as Blanche Dubois, she captivates. Wearing a prim suit, stockings, a hat with a net and gloves she is completely out of place where the other women are in housedresses and kerchiefs, fanning themselves against the damp heat. Blanche is flirtatious, imperious, crazy and desperate.

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Of course you know her, just as you know Stella ( Daphne Rubin-Vega, Broadway's "Rent") and Stanley. But we don't know these interpretations and to Mann's and the actors' credits there is nothing bizarrely altered, we just look deep into their souls. It is not pretty.

Before we go there, let's linger for a moment on the beauty that is Underwood (TV's "The Event"). When he strips off his shirt the first time, sighs of approval fill the theater. 

This is one of those stories that everyone must know, but just in case: Stella and Stanley live in squalor in New Orleans, among friends. Her sister, Blanche, comes to visit, and is clearly running from something. That something turns out to be her life, in tatters.

She lost the family house, her job, her reputation and her money. She is homeless and penniless but still has her charm and her airs. Blanche is a beautiful woman -- more lovely in the right light -- but some of her beauty has faded, rubbed away by years of anonymous men.

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Stanley sees through her instantly, and is cruel, but Stella fights him; she adores her unbalanced big sister. They live together in this tiny apartment, and Blanche says she cannot understand her baby sister's attraction to this uncultured lout. 

It is sex. Stanley and Stella have that sort of electricity between them that porn could only hope to copy. Stella does not care that she was raised to be genteel. Stanley's pure animal magnetism is what she craves, and she is willing to put up with him smacking her around. She physically needs him.

Stella tries one last time, and almost successfully, lands a man, Mitch ( Wood Harris, TV's "The Wire"). This Mitch is laconic, sweet and the scene where he realizes just how old Stella is and comprehends her past, remains chilling.

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The trick with restaging a well-know play is that every note needs to ring true and clear. Many of the producers here were also behind the 2008 revival of another Williams' masterpiece, "Cat on A Hot Tin Roof" and though that had a great cast with James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad and Terrence Howard, it didn't ignite the way this does.

Terrence Blanchard's jazz score fits so perfectly into the play, never overwhelming the words, but adding another layer of steaminess. The stage feels hazy from the heat with Edward Pierce's lighting and Eugene Lee's sets.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" includes a couple of oft-quoted lines and to the production's credit, they are different enough here that they are exciting. When Stanley screams "Stella!" it's Underwood's Stanley, in a sweat-soaked and dirty red T-shirt that you hear and see, not memories of the black-and-white image of Brando. And as the play pitches to its painful end, and Blanche says how she always relies on the kindness of strangers, it is Parker's Blanche whom you can only hope finds some solace, eventually.
Photo/Video credit: Ken Howard
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