Gillian Anderson Boards a Stylized ‘Streetcar'

The apartment shared by Stanley and Stella Kowalski in the “Streetcar” revival now open at St. Ann’s Warehouse sits on a constantly-in-motion turntable—one probably not unlike the carousels real streetcars glide onto, when reversing direction.

Streetcars may be liberating, because they take us away. But the one Gillian Anderson steps onto, as tragic Blanche DuBois in a stylized update of the Tennessee Williams classic, keeps turning and turning, and getting her nowhere.

The smoldering star of TV’s “The X-Files” and “The Fall” was Olivier Award-nominated for her work as the fading Southern beauty who pays an ill-fated visit to her sister and brother-in-law in New Orleans. Blanche’s foil, Stanley, here is played by an animal-like Ben Foster, who made his Broadway debut in 2013’s “Orphans.”

Aside from the set, this production (a co-effort by the Young Vic and Joshua Andrews) is notable for its modernities: the Kowalskis’ French Quarter apartment could be a sterile Williamsburg condo. Foster, with his tattoos and tank tops, wears cargo pants that might be from Old Navy; the band of his Under Armour boxer-briefs is exposed when the trousers come off.

Not making the trip to the 21st century, however, is Anderson, in a performance rife with mid-20th century assumptions about politesse.

Blanche retains a facade of courtliness that may not exist anymore, even among proud Southern families. Anderson’s interpretation strikes a note of dissonance with the other performances from this cast—it will surely be a polarizing point for audiences; I liked it. Inarguably, it’s almost as if she were in an entirely different play from the other performers.

Anderson’s hair is lightened blonde from its usual auburn, lending her face a starkly washed-out appearance. Her Blanche is clearly a woman who has lost all she loved the most: her home, her social standing, her youth and beauty. By the play’s devastating final scenes, she looks like a child’s makeup-smeared Barbie doll.

Foster, the “3:10 to Yuma” and “Alpha Dog” actor, went full-on method for his characterization of the ape-like Stanley, watching YouTube videos of gorillas seeing themselves in mirrors, reports said. Rather than memorializing a simmering Marlon Brando, Foster creates a different Stanley, just a smart-alecky guy in a working class job.

For chills in this 3-hour-plus staging, directed by Benedict Andrews (currently helming the film adaptation of David Harrower’s “Blackbird”), there’s no better moment than when Stanley slips into the kitchen as Blanche is telling Stella (the excellent Vanessa Kirby) how “common” she finds her spouse.

Never aware Stanley is overhearing the discussion, Blanche steps backward so close to the combustible Foster that I was surprised she couldn’t feel his breath on her neck. The two leads have a tantalizing and twisted chemistry.

Impressive, as well, is Corey Johnson’s Mitch, the articulate fella who hopes Blanche could be the woman to provide him companionship once his mother passes. Mitch’s disappointment, when he learns truths about Blanche’s past, is expressed in a horrifying scene where he nearly smothers her with the full weight of his body.

Because the set rotates—mostly, it crawls at about the speed of The View restaurant, atop the Marriott Marquis—Andrews must ensure scenes are blocked so that audience members on all sides of the nifty turntable get their big moments with a character. There will be a few times your view is obstructed by a pillar or door (all walls have been removed).

Supporting characters often yell from catwalks. Scene changes are noted with jarringly loud songs, among them Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and P.J. Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love.”

This is an enjoyable interpretation of an American classic, unfrozen from its typical place in time. If “Streetcar” doesn’t expose the emotional crises of its central characters, there’s no point watching it. The sterile backdrop here does its job, with all that blankness forcing our attention onto the chaos being played out in its midst.

“A Streetcar Named Desire,” through June 4 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street, DUMBO. Tickets: $85 & up. Call 718-254-8779.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn 

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