PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Streetcar Named Desire: Dial M for Magnolias and Madness

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27 Apr 2005

Natasha Richardson; John C. Reilly; John Weidman; Joe Mantello; Scott Elliot; Martin McDonagh; Amy Irving; Liam Neeson; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Ian McKellen; Lynn Redgrave; Kate Burton; Edward Hall
Natasha Richardson; John C. Reilly; John Weidman; Joe Mantello; Scott Elliot; Martin McDonagh; Amy Irving; Liam Neeson; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Ian McKellen; Lynn Redgrave; Kate Burton; Edward Hall
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

To reach the two-room sty of Stanley and Stella Kowalski in the Elysian Fields sector of New Orleans, you either dial the Magnolia-9 exchange or you hop a rickety ride on A Streetcar Named Desire.

Blanche DuBois, Stella's sis, opts for the hop, arriving wobbly-legged for a long day's journey into the darkness of nights. Tennessee Williams' great argument against extended families clocked in at three hours April 26 in its current reincarnation at Studio 54. Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly occupied the center ring as the faint-hearted Blanche and the primitive Stanley warring over the woman they both love. That it's still a contest after all these years—and a riveting one, at that—is a testament to Williams' art and heart.

This is theatre with a T, and, accordingly, Studio 54 reverted itself to pre-Studio 54 days, to rows and rows of theatre seats which were once filled by audiences watching somebody named Johnny Carson host a daytime game show for CBS. Gone were the chairs and tables installed for Cabaret and continued (incredibly, now that one thinks about it) through back-to-back Sondheims: Assassins and Pacific Overtures). The old look evokes the feeling of a bygone golden era of theatre. A grand old edifice! When Streetcar came to its crushing close, the opening-night crowd bolted by bus and cab (sorry, no trolley service) for Guastavino's across town on (very) East 59th Street. Pianist-performer John Wallowitch, seated behind the driver of the first chartered bus out, was accused of bribing him to go across 57th so Wallowich could point out Opia, where he's beginning a late night "reality show" Saturdays at 10:45 PM called Wallowitch Uncensored: An Evening of Romance and Filth. Wrongway Wallowitch pled innocent.

Previous tenants of Studio 54 were on hand to inspect the changes: the author of Pacific Overtures (John Weidman) as well as the director and John Hinckley of Assassins (Joe Mantello and Alexander Gemignani). Other directors: Anthony Page (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Ethan McSweeny (Never a Sinner), Neil Pepe (Romance), John Tillinger (A Picasso), Scott Elliott (Hurlyburly) and lyricist bookwriter David Zippel (whose preparing Princess for Seattle). Playwrights were in abundance: Martin McDonagh, John Guare, Romulus Linney, Warren Leight, Terrence McNally and actor-now-playwright Bruce Norris. Also: John Slattery, Kristen Johnston, Lisa Emery, Amy Irving, Reg Rogers, Dana Ivey and a couple of late-arriving Twelve Angry Men, Michael Mastro and Kevin Geer.

Gene Feist, who preceded Todd Haimes as this theatre company's top honcho, was attending his first Roundabout premiere without his lovely wife, Kathe, Roundabout's first First Lady, who acted under the name of Elizabeth Owen. She died last month.

Three of Richardson's previous stage co-stars were there to wish her well: Ciaran Hinds from Closer, John Benjamin Hickey of Cabaret and, last, but certainly not least, that entirely credible hunk, Liam Neeson, whom the Roundabout joined together with Richardson for Anna Christie. Neeson, looking vaguely like a man who had just had an anvil lifted off his chest after the performance, admitted such openings are hard on husbands. "The first ten minutes are," he quickly conceded, "especially when you're playing all the parts. It's like a trainer in a corner, shadow-boxing with the boxer." Hinds, whose film work has tripled since he played Richardson's doctor husband in the Broadway Closer, had a two-fold reason for being in town. "My wife [Helene Patarot] is working on a Peter Brook play up at Columbia University [Tierno Bokar]—she finishes tonight—and, because I've worked with Natasha and with my friend Liam [his first movie, 1981's Excalibur, was with Neeson], I worked it so I could see both plays on the same visit. I also wanted to reacquaint our daughter with her mother, who's toured a long time."

Hickey was effusive about Richardson's Blanche."I thought she was astonishing," he confessed. "It's the first time I've felt Blanche was a real flesh-and-blood human being, not like an idea of a character. I loved that about the production, too. I think everybody was very real. It's a hard, hard play—and a glorious play, a play that we should always appreciate the chance to see. There's never going to be a time when Streetcar won't have its many ghosts. I don't feel anyone did battle with them tonight. They did their version of it."

Christmas comes a little early this year for Hickey—seven months early: In May he begins a Hallmark TV movie called "Silver Bells" (presumably after the un-Oscar nominated ditty Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote for Bob Hope's The Lemon Drop Kid). He will co-star with Anne Heche, John Cunningham and Barbara Martindale. In the can is a feature he filmed in Austin in which he plays Jack Dunphy, friend and lover of Truman Capote for 35 years. Capote is played by The Play What I Wrote's Toby Jones. Tentatively titled Every Word Is True and set for release in fall of '06, the film also features Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Sandra Bullock (as Harper Lee), Alan Cumming, Ashley Judd, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Anjelica Huston, Kevin Kline and Hope Davis.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was present as a show of support for his True West bro Riley, will have his big-screen Capote coming out first, probably this summer. The film is called, simply, Capote and focuses on a much narrower space of time—the mid-1960s when the celebrated scribe was researching and reporting his masterwork, In Cold Blood. "It's a fantastic story, him writing that book," the actor says. And there's no truth to the rumor Hoffman will be the Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday Stanley. (He and Riley alternated roles during their True West run.) "I believe I'll leave this one to John. He was great."

One of Richardson's most recent screen stars lent his celebrity to the proceedings—Ian McKellan. "I haven't seen the play for ages, and it was just a thrill to hear it again," he said. "It's a fantastic play, and I thought Natasha was sensational. I came over especially for it. We just did a movie together, Asylum. It opened last night at the Tribeca Festival."
Undoubtedly the most expert and longest-standing of Tennessee Williams' supporters in the cavernous Guastavino's were Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, who met walking railroad rails in Williams' This Property Is Condemned at Equity Library Theatre. She went on to the original company of Summer and Smoke and he to the original company of The Rose Tattoo (for which he won a Tony) and Camino Real (which he picked over doing the role that won Frank Sinatra the Oscar for From Here to Eternity). Together, they toured in The Glass Menagerie as brother and sister. "One of my favorite roles," admitted Jackson. "Tennessee holds a special hypnotic thing for us." They have even done a two-person tribute to the playwright, Tennessee Williams Remembered, which begins with a snippet of film footage of them doing This Property Is Condemned.


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