By all rights, Hattiloo Theatre's founding executive Ekundayo Bandele should make a fantastic Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. He's got a look that fluctuates between easygoing elegance and smoldering intensity. His performance in Topdog/Underdog was a highlight of the 2007/'08 theater season, proving that the gifted writer, designer, and director can come out from behind the curtain and hold his own as an actor. But for some reason, Bandele never seems completely at home in the skin of Williams' brutish masculine archetype. And his performance, while always watchable, is surprisingly mundane. The same may be said for the rest of an ensemble that gives until it hurts but still comes up short.
There are times when I think of Williams as the Yngwie Malmsteen of American playwrights. Like the quick-fingered guitar player, Williams was given to a bit of excess. And all possible lessons from Amadeus aside, even the greatest artists can play too many notes. I agree with critic Brooks Atkinson, who, in 1947, described A Streetcar Named Desire as overlong, explaining that "not all those words are essential."
Although he's associated with naturalistic Method actors such as Marlon Brando, Williams was a formalist's formalist and his self-consciously poetic words with their expressionist overtones and echoes of Shakespeare and Chekhov were never intended to be "essential." They were supposed to be a beautiful assault on the audience's senses, capturing every sweaty, grimy nuance of life in New Orleans' French Quarter. They were supposed to play out like jazz, and when an ensemble really cooks, that's exactly how it works. But not every ensemble can jam. There's not always a lot of natural chemistry between the principle characters at Hattiloo, and without that chemistry, this overheated melodrama about sex, money, power, and the crumbling aristocracy of the Old South can drag on. Without that natural chemistry, the words can pile up like a wreck on the interstate, bringing any forward progress to a crawl.
A show where most of the racist language targets people of Polish descent and where much of the drama keys off of the loss of a family plantation can be a jarring test for an African-American theater company. It's a test Hattiloo ultimately passes as a result of their honest, unfussy performances. Still, there's a little something lost in the translation.
Krissi Cain makes for a sweet Stella, though it's hard to know why she doesn't run when Stanley turns violent. The "things" she speaks of that happen between a man and a woman making everything else okay are seldom evident.
Bronzjuan Worthy gets all of Blanche's nervous fragility but very little of her edge. The character may be wounded and delusional, but she's also a master manipulator of both women and men. She's a proto-cougar who's always depended on her wits, not the "kindness of strangers." Even in the end, as she's being taken to a mental hospital, that famous line is a part of her act. Worthy's performance is detailed and often compelling. But only in the scene where Blanche considers seducing a newspaper boy are we allowed to see her more reptilian and predatory side emerge.
Delvyn Brown seems to understand that beneath his character's mama's-boy exterior lurks the heart of a wolf. Oh sure, he's the most polite guy on poker night, but he still tries to push his date with Blanche as far as it will go. Unfortunately, of all the major characters, his seems to be the most interesting and the least fully developed.
Director Leslie "Stickey" Reddick has crafted a solid if not always exciting production of one of the 20th century's most deceptively difficult scripts. Light changes can be abrupt and jarring, and the voices from the street never mingle as smoothly as the Dixieland Williams attempted to mimic. Still, there is virtue in simplicity, and even if the play is never as dynamic as it could be, it's refreshing to see A Streetcar Named Desire presented free from so much of the baggage that usually accompanies it.
Of all of Tennessee Williams' best-known scripts, Streetcar may have aged the worst, but even Hattiloo's uneven production will remind audiences why this show changed the face of American theater.