A Blanche Named Blanchett

Cate shines in Williams’ gem under Liv’s steady hand

I feel like a grinch telling you how wonderful Cate Blanchett (as Blanche du Bois) and Sydney Theater Company are under Liv Ullman’s inspired direction when the run of the show at BAM’s Harvey Theater is sold out. If you don’t have tickets and are exceedingly blessed, maybe someone will make an early holiday present of them to you.

For those of you who can’t secure a ticket for this stark but brilliant production of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, I would offer the consolation prize of David Cromer’s production of “Our Town” at the Barrow Street Theater, which is similarly stark but brilliant. With its 337th performance on December 16, it will become the longest run in history for Thornton Wilder’s 71-year-old masterpiece, and the press was invited in for another look recently. It has lost none of its capacity to make the play new, now with Jason Butler Harner as the Stage Manager, the role originated by Cromer himself in this run.

There are other consolation prizes for plays I have just seen. There’s the innovative New York Theater Workshop production of Rebecca Gilman’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ exquisitely sad “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” directed by Doug Hughes. And Welsh actor Geraint Wyn Davies’s channeling of Dylan Thomas, in “Do Not Go Gentle” by Leon Powell, scales heights of artistry and humor at the intimate Clurman Theater on Theater Row. How can you not love someone who says, “I need a piss” to signal intermission? But there is also stirring poetry as Thomas tells his story and not just when he recites his familiar verse.

But back to New Orleans by way of Sydney. The Australian cast, miraculously imported intact to Brooklyn and aided by Norwegian actor/ director Ullman, set designer Ralph Myers, and lighting designer Nick Schlieper, have conjured up a “Streetcar” that transcends time and place. While Desire can be heard clanking outside the grim, cramped Kowalski apartment, there is absolutely no attempt to ease the pain of watching these players disintegrate in close quarters by invoking a romantic New Orleans outside. Ullman has indicated she was trying for an Edward Hopper visual. It looked more like the bareness of the apartment in TV’s “The Honeymooners” times ten.

There are no false notes in this production. Robin McLeavy’s Stella and Joel Edgerton’s Stanley are especially fine not to mention sexy, and not just when Edgerton takes his shirt off to audible gasps. But no matter what else was happening on either side of the small apartment divided by a curtain providing no real privacy, I couldn’t take my eyes off Blanchett. As my friend Jed Justiniani noted at intermission, it is better than the Kazan movie where the camera naturally shifts focus from character to character. Here there is no respite from seeing Blanche’s pain — even when she is in the bathroom or off stage —— for that is the subject of this play.

Blanchett is famous for playing haughty women from Kate Hepburn to Elizabeth I, and those skills serve her well when Blanche, hat in hand, enters the Kowalski’s lower middle class love nest as the play opens. She was very good as “Hedda Gabler” two year ago at BAM, but fooled around with the role a bit, even imitating Hepburn at one point.

Here in “Streetcar,” there is no hint of the drag camp that those playing Blanche can slip into. There was occasional laughter from many in the audience at some of her lines (“I’m not going to be hypocritical,” Blanche says on entering the dump, “I’m going to be honestly critical.”) as they eagerly sought to extricate themselves from the unrelievedly downward spiral Blanche is on. Despite being caught up in her pathos, I couldn’t help myself once or twice. But this is no sit-com. It is tragedy of the keenest sort — and it is not easy making a wounded creature such as Blanche, already on the ropes and wrapped in illusions, display the fall from a great height necessary for true tragedy. But Blanchett does it.

Williams plays have been produced rather promiscuously since his withholding literary executor, Maria Britneva, died in 1994, and he has been almost overexposed since then, represented by some productions that dimmed his star. This “Streetcar,” ending with a stunning lighting effect, restores His Greatness to just that, if there were any doubts. These strangers from Australia and Norway have been very kind to us indeed.

Complete Information:

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Brooklyn Academy of Music

Harvey Theater

651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl.

Through Dec. 20 (sold out)

$40 – 120; bam.org

Or 718-636-4100

OUR TOWN

Barrow Street Theatre

27 Barrow St. Seventh Ave. S.

Tue.-Sun. at 7:30 p.m.

Sat., Sun. at 2:30 p.m.

$49.50-$69; smarttix.com

212-868-4444

$20 student tickets day

of performance

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