Tourists in New Orleans are always delighted to discover there really is a streetcar named Desire. It is, however, no longer the "rattletrap that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another." Now it's a tourist attraction, standing tamely in place so you can take your picture with it.
In its current production, Tennessee Williams' great play rather resembles its namesake. Though there are several extremely strong performances, this is a tepid tourist approach to the play.
The French Quarter here has a flower vendor, a roving sax player and plenty of wrought iron - just the right cliche touches. What it lacks is a sense of an old world decaying, of desire hanging palpably, urgently in the air.
Much ink has been spilled over how new attitudes toward women affect our understanding of Blanche DuBois and her sister Stella. These women can only be understood as creatures of a specific time, the moment when the genteel Old South has fallen victim not to Yankee soldiers, but to Yankee industrialism.
Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, embodies the new spirit. He is a traveling salesman. He is also a sensualist.
If there's something our new sexual attitudes make it hard for us to understand, it's desire unfulfilled. The Gospel According to Freud has not yet reached Williams' New Orleans. We find it natural to follow our sexual inclinations. Williams' characters are nervous about it. Except for Stanley.
Blanche, we learn, has acted upon her darkest impulses, and it has thrown her into a fantasy world where she need not acknowledge what she has done.
Without this tangled undergrowth of anxiety and nervous longing, the play loses its force. What comes through is Williams' cruel sense of humor, which is clear in the first minute, when Blanche, surveying her sister's dilapidated building, repeats the street name, "Elysian Fields." In a good production, Stella's place should seem hellish to Blanche. Here it's more like Limbo.
The most exciting performance here is that of Frances McDormand as Stella. She is an enormously appealing actress and she conveys beautifully how torn Stella is between her pathetic sister and her brutish husband.
Another strong characterization is Frank Converse's as the mixed-up Mama's boy Mitch, who poignantly embodies the confused sexual signals of the time.
Blythe Danner, whom I have always admired, does well in the scenes when Blanche plays the fluttery Southern Belle. She is playful, like a butterfly. Williams describes her nastily as a moth. We seldom sense any underlying anguish. Only at the end does the pain of her predicament really hit us.
Aidan Quinn, a powerful young actor, is out of his depth as Stanley. He has the crudeness but not the poetic sensuality. Williams clearly loved this character. So does Stella. So, we learn, does Blanche. Quinn doesn't make this comprehensible.
Becky Gelke is very flavorful as the upstairs neighbor, and the smaller roles are capably done. The evocatively lit set is busy and sometimes makes the action unnecessarily awkward. The costumes convey the period well.
The direction is by Nikos Psacharopoulos, who runs a sort of summer camp for famous actors in Williamstown, Mass. This production is based on one he did there. It is a cold, brittle "Streetcar," partaking more of Massachusetts than Louisiana.
The ultimate legacy of Tennessee Williams is that he redefined tragedy as the destruction of the pathetic, the defeat of the broken, giving it a new dimension.
Hubris has no place in his tragic world. Pride doesn't come before a fall, because it doesn't come at all. It has been replaced by fear and the nervous alienation of a loneliness that can only be fugitively touched by sex or booze before the final embraces of madness or death.
Something of this sadness, this petty tragedy of tawdry hope, is to be seen in his first masterpiece, "The Glass Menagerie," but it is first amply expressed in the more flawed but more poetically flamboyant "A Streetcar Named Desire."
A new "Streetcar" opened last night at the uptown Circle in the Square in a staging by Nikos Psacharopoulos, whose Williamstown Theater Festival has become something of a Williams shrine.
This production, starring a fragile and battered Blythe Danner and a viperishly scrappy Aidan Quinn, has not got the poetic incandescence the play can possess, but its cool, realistic insights suggest an almost revisionist view of the play as a clinical study of Blanche Du Bois and her insanity.
The contrast between the Southern gentility of Blanche and the animal vitality of her crass, brutish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski is less important here than is Blanche herself, poised precariously on the milder shore of madness.
Blanche herself puts a view of the world - and, I suppose, of the play - that seems to come close to Williams' moistly beating heart, when she says: "I don't want realism, I want magic."
And the magic of the play is potent, summed up by the steamy New Orleans heat, the perfumed refinement and plaintive nostalgia of poor Blanche and the beer-stained sweatiness of Stanley - both so emblematically captured by the movie images of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando that you can practically smell them.
You miss some of this in Psacharopoulos's staging, despite Danner's English-style Southern accent (why, by the way, have so many distinguished Blanches - Jessica Tandy, Leigh, Claire Bloom and Rosemary Harris - been English?) and her careful yet febrile air of coquettish refinement.
Psacharopoulos seems to have actually demystified the play, cutting down a few mystic elements, such as the Spanish woman selling flowers for the dead, and stressing the ordinariness, even the kindness, of the institutional strangers who come to collect Blanche in the end.
The gains are considerable. Stallion Stanley and his friend Mitch - that dear, clumsy Mitch - are revealed as the loathsome, insensitive creatures they really are, and we see poor Blanche, struggling with alcoholism, nymphomania (the scene with the young boy is done perfectly) and schizophrenia, simply swept away.
One result of this demystifying process is that it concentrates attention upon Blanche and her story. From her first stilted entrance and her pitiful effort to grab a snort of liquor to steady her nerves, right up to the poignantly nutty grand dame exit, Blanche is in focus.
The relating of her struggles with her dying mother, the finances of the mortgaged home, her marriage to a beautiful, suicidal homosexual, and her pitiful sexual escapades at the Flamingo Hotel, take on an unusual credibility. We see the mind slightly unhinged, and see why that unmooring might have happened.
If there are not the electric sparks flowing between Stanley and Blanche (he just instinctively knows she's a nymphomaniac, and takes her almost as casually as he would a belt of whiskey), there are sparks where the story needs them - between Stanley and his wife, Stella.
Circle in the Square will never be an easy space for the designer, but John Conklin has done an excellent job, particularly in locating the play in its New Orleans context. The costumes by Jess Goldstein are a flea-market dream, antiques perfect in time and function.
And the performances, while deliberately less flamboyant than many we have seen before, serve playwright and director superbly. At the start, Danner seems uncommonly awkward - muffing the accent, stultifying the stilted into unwonted exaggeration, but slowly her performance falls into place.
Its essence is Blanche's mental instability; she walks through the shadow of the valley of remembrance, and hears the music of the memories. Even her beauty is bruised, while her behavior limps and is, in its grating way, as grossly insensitive as Stanley's.
Blanche is an impossible woman. She never had a chance. Through the genetics of her birth, or the trauma of her life, Blanche is crazy. Not misunderstood, or misused. She is crazy. That is her tragedy.
Quinn's oddly subtle Stanley is more than simply a brute: he is a whining, almost sniveling brute. He is mean, greedy and totally self-centered. Why Stella loves him must be some cruel joke of sexual chemistry, but Frances McDormand, brilliantly alive and convincing, makes us believe in it totally.
Completing the well-judged principal quartet is Frank Converse's decent but self-righteous Mitch - a character who makes you realize that Blanche's craziness is much superior to his narrow brand of sanity.
Like Kevin Conway's wonderful but generally underestimated staging of "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" earlier in the season, another vehicle for common truths and uncommon acting, "Streetcar," has been staged with a minimum of mystique and a maximum of clarity.
Such a hard-edged approach - so different from the sex-laden, booze-sodden atmospheric rhapsodies of the past - is different but welcome. We have long known Tennessee Williams as an American playwright. We are now starting to explore him as a classic.
"We've had this date with each other from the beginning," says Stanley Kowalski to his sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, just before he sweeps her away to bed in ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' That line - wholly in character for Stanley and yet a classic expression of tragedy's inexorable pull - sets off what is still among the most shocking acts of human destruction the American stage has known. In the collision of Stanley, the working-class stiff, and Blanche, the frayed Southern belle, Tennessee Williams gave life to forces that run far deeper than his play's specific place (New Orleans) and sociological context (the postwar 1940's). ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' is not a morality tale about a brutal man victimizing a frail woman but a terrifying plunge into the madness that afflicts anyone, male or female, brute or sensitive, who submits to his own personal executioner - the passion so incendiary that it consumes the self.
It says everything about Nikos Psacharopoulos's new production of ''Streetcar'' at the Circle in the Square that when its Blanche and Stanley, Blythe Danner and Aidan Quinn, keep their ''date,'' we don't witness the promised thunderclap of self-immolation. Their date really looks more like a date than a rape. As the lights fade, Mr. Quinn leads Miss Danner into a necking session - in more ways than one an anticlimax. So it goes in a staging that may not deface Williams's masterpiece but often sanitizes it. Mr. Psacharopoulos's production demonstrates how a director can provide an intelligent, entirely respectful rendition of a classic text - and still miss the streetcar.
In this instance, that streetcar is indeed named desire. What is most absent from the evening, and not just in Blanche and Stanley's showdown, is sex. Miss Danner and Mr. Quinn - both fine actors, both erotic figures in other circumstances - shed no sparks here. As they circle each other in scene after scene, submerging their increasingly torrential passions in household bickering, we never feel the magnetic undertow, the smoldering combustion that should make their ultimate mutual conflagration both inevitable and frightening. Defused, ''Streetcar'' becomes instead a domestic comedy - the intrusive in-law irritating the macho king of his castle. That's part of the story, but hardly the whole of it.
Miss Danner's performance is a particular disappointment, especially to an admirer who has felt that this actress had an inevitable rendezvous with the role of Blanche. To her credit, she doesn't make the mistake of playing the dispossessed Mississippi schoolteacher as a madwoman from the outset; this Blanche is initially pretentious and ridiculous, deservedly funny as she too strenuously refuses drinks and too grandly brags of the vanished traditions of her lost plantation, Belle Reve. And we get glimpses beneath the airs and coquetry, too. When, early on, Miss Danner scoops up the cherished papers, ''poems a dead boy wrote,'' that Stanley has manhandled, she does so with a tremulous delicacy, as if in picking up the poems she were gathering up their author's ashes. At the end of Act I, when Blanche delivers her monologue describing the suicide of that ''boy'' - her homosexual husband - Miss Danner starts to make the transition into psychic collapse. Her pale bony hands fly to her eyes in horror as she confronts the memory of her own guilty role in hastening the death of the man she loved.
But that scene proves to be the peak of the performance. After intermission, Miss Danner lapses into the fey eccentricity of her Elvira in ''Blithe Spirit'' rather than sinking into desperation. When Blanche's would-be protector, Mitch (Frank Converse), holds her face to the hanging lightbulb, the harsh light exposes no ravages or secrets we haven't seen before. Miss Danner's sobs in response to Stanley's first efforts to evict her have a phony ring. Her later cry of panic - ''Fire! Fire! Fire!'' - is fueled by pumping arms, not by a volcanic outpouring of hysteria rising from within. No wonder Miss Danner's final exit to the insane asylum is so unmoving. This Blanche needn't depend on the kindness of strangers because her illusions haven't convincingly crumbled, she never actually has snapped.
As Miss Danner pumps her arms, so Mr. Quinn pumps up his voice. It's hard to blame him. This actor provides some ambiguous qualities appropriate to Stanley - his masculinity has its androgynous side, his boorishness its leavening humor - yet he is nonetheless miscast. A compact man of bantam stature, he cannot provide the simian animal force that must rule the play's first half. The problem isn't that Mr. Quinn is not Marlon Brando but that he does not fit Stanley, as described and reacted to by the other characters. While Stanley is no abject villain, there must be an aura of danger about him - sexual danger with Blanche, physical danger with his poker-playing cronies. Even Mr. Quinn's showiest preliminary flights into rage - the hurling of a radio, the smashing of dinner dishes - seem tame. The actor must bellow to simulate a menacing presence that simply is not among his many gifts.
The rest of the cast and staging are of a piece with the stars. Frances McDormand's hearty, fleshy Stella and Mr. Converse's sincere Mitch have promise, yet we realize how underdeveloped they are when their grief-stricken reactions to Blanche's final destruction seem to come from nowhere. John Conklin's set calls attention to the awkwardness of the arena stage and substitutes nondescript tackiness for French Quarter tattiness, Williams's crucial ''atmosphere of decay.'' The sizzle of a fetid New Orleans summer is not to be found in Curt Ostermann's Act I lighting. Michael O'Flaherty's languorous incidental jazz music and a hokily costumed, excessively malingering Mexican flower vendor serve to emphasize the lengthy, clunky waits between scenes.
''I don't want realism,'' says Blanche. ''I want magic!'' It's a formulation that can serve as a prescription for a Tennessee Williams production, if not necessarily for a life. What we have here is a ''Streetcar'' without that magic, without the poetry. Though one can still find the play, not only are what the Kowalskis call the ''colored lights'' of passion missing, but so are the shadows of what Blanche identifies as the opposite of desire, death. What falls between those two poles of existence is the ordinary stuff of realism - a genteel theatrical evening in place of a tragedy forged to rip through the night.