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When Underwood Strips in ‘Streetcar,’ Folks Gasp: Review

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"A Streetcar Named Desire"
Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood in ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' in New York. The play tells the tragic story of fragile former schoolteacher Blanche, who leaves the family plantation and moves to New Orleans to live with her sister. Photographer: Ken Howard/Springer Associates PR via Bloomberg

April 23 (Bloomberg) -- Grounded in powerhouse performances by Blair Underwood as Stanley Kowalski and Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche DuBois, the latest, mostly black, Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is extraordinarily moving.

The director, Emily Mann, has said that long before “color-blind casting” became a flashpoint in American play staging, Tennessee Williams himself told her of his eagerness to see such a production.

Mann, a gifted, imaginative director whose work always betrays a moral underpinning, has done more than simply make unusual casting choices. She’s conceived a jazz-drenched show that couldn’t be more right for a drama set in New Orleans.

The music of this ultimate racial melting pot of a city is captured in Terence Blanchard’s hushed underscoring; in Eugene Lee’s shabby setting, Edward Pierce’s now garish, now honeyed lighting and Paul Tazewell’s memorable costumes (especially Blanche’s outlandish, tattered gowns).

But you want to know about Underwood, and why not? It’s not as though Brando himself didn’t distinguish Stanley as an icon of brute sexual charisma, and on that score Underwood certainly delivers the goods. Just listen to the gasps and sighs emanating from the audience when he strips to an undershirt or less.

Vulnerable, Explosive

More important, Underwood adds an unexpected vulnerability that makes Stanley’s violence as explosive and, oddly, as believable, as any I’ve seen.

Parker’s Blanche enters already a ghost of herself, haunted-looking and ephemeral, her eyes vacant and every gesture suggesting that her limbs just might float away.

Her voice is all insinuation, enveloped in Southern musicality. When Blanche tells a wide-eyed newsboy, “You make my mouth water,” the actress tosses off the line so casually you nearly miss the sadness of it. All this makes Stanley’s rape and its aftermath that much more shocking.

Wood Harris, as Blanche’s suitor Mitch, brings the right combination of Mama’s boy and righteousness. Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Stella seems less to-the-manner born than her sister. But she adds a pragmatic chill I haven’t before heard when Stella acknowledges that she has no choice but to disbelieve Blanche in order to survive.

Mann opens the second act with a tableau vivant of a New Orleans funeral, giving Blanchard a few moments to raise the urgent instrumental voices. Yet for all its primal actions, this fine “Streetcar” never needs to shout.

At the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***


What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Today's Muse highlights include Greg Evans's TV review and John Mariani on wine.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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