Watching the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s gripping but inconsistent — though sold-out nonetheless! — production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” one could not help but feel the vague palimpsest of one of the last big productions on the same BAM Harvey stage, Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
Though the plays are separated by decades of history — and thousands of miles of geography — “Streetcar” director Liv Ullmann (yes, that Liv Ullmann) has wrested a thematic connection between the story of fading Russian aristocracy and the mental collapse of that archetypal faded Southern belle, Blanche DuBois.
No doubt Ullmann’s Scandinavian background — and her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman — helped tilt the tone of this production of the Tennessee Williams classic away from American melodrama and towards the Russian’s trademark laughter-through-tears tragicomedy.
The subtle shift of emphasis not only broadens one of the play’s universal messages — in short, “S—t happens” — but allows the show’s star, Cate Blanchett, to walk the horrifying (and, ultimately, gratifying) high wire between Blanche’s mental delusions and her pride.
Blanchett’s performance is remarkable in so many ways, but the most important of which is how funny her Blanche is. Yes, all the ticks and frailties and manipulation that Williams wrote into the character are front and center, but Blanchett isn’t afraid to allow Blanche to actually get laughs.
Robin McLeavy also shines in the less-thankful role of Blanche’s sister Stella, imbuing the character with the altogether different Chekhovian impulse to blithely float through life even as the whole world is collapsing around you — in her case, her marriage to a brutal abuser who raped her sister.
But Ullmann’s direction is not without its flaws. First, I’m not sure she ever solved the epic challenge of staging “Streetcar”: What to do with Stanley.
In Ullmann’s hands, Stanley Kowalski (the uber-masculine Joel Edgerton) alternates from animal brutality to bayou intellectual to sensitive husband. Edgerton is at his best with his shirt off, prowling around Ralph Myers’s sparse set like a panther overdosing on Viagra. He’s less convincing when he cowers after slapping his wife around, begging for a forgiveness that he does not deserve.
And at several critical moments in the play — Stanley’s rape of Blanche, as well as his friend Mitch’s foiled attempt to do the same — Ullmann’s direction goes limp. Such moments are the climax of scenes that were perfectly built, line by line, by master-plotter Williams, but Ullmann wimps out at the most dramatic moment.
As a result, Stanley’s rape of Blanche actually comes off as a moment of tenderness.
It’s a black mark on the play — but not enough to detract from amazing performances in a Russian-tinged American classic.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” at Brooklyn Academy of Music [30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix Street in Fort Greene, (718) 636-4100] will run through Dec. 20. The entire run is sold out, but marked-up seats are available on www.stubhub.com.