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

By Harry Haun
April 27, 2005

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.

"I thought this production was excellent," said Wallach, "but, when they make that announcement to turn off your sound effects and unwrap your candy now, I wished they'd also say `Don't stand up at the end because other people want to see the actors on stage.'" His wife nodded decisively. "It has become automatic. They start standing before the curtain is down. Sometimes, when you see a play and you're so moved by it, your knees are wobbly and you can't stand up. It should not happen immediately. It should not."

Despite the lateness of the hour and oblivious to their years, the Wallachs made their way to the celebrity epicenter and waited for Richardson to show, which she finally did—spectacularly in a stunning Dolce Gabbana leopard print. There were a flock of friends and fans to acknowledge, and she breezed graciously through the obligatory glad-handing, stealing a smoke whenever she could. The most intimate moment was the familial well-I-made-it-look she threw to her auntie, Lynn Redgrave, who was clucking contentedly over her niece's triumph. "She's so extraordinary," Auntie allowed without apology. "I saw a preview a couple of weeks ago, and she's even more wonderful now." Lynn was the evening's official Redgrave welcome-wagon. Her sister and Natasha's mum, Vanessa Redgrave, was upholding the family business at the RSC, playing Hecuba, which she will bring to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 16.

"There'll be a moment where we'll all be on stage in the area," noted Lynn, who started earlier in the day rehearsing The Constant Wife, the W. Somerset Maugham comedy which the Roundabout will revive at the American Airlines Theatre on the very same June 16. "It's a great role," said Lynn, who, game girl, is the mother of the title character. "She's very funny and sorta retro." The title role belongs to another flame-haired Generation 2 star, Kate Burton, who, not having blood kin in the cast, called it a day after the play.

Jackson went over to congratulate Reilly and told him she thought Streetcar was Williams' best work. (The late critic Walter Kerr carried that opinion one loop more and called Streetcar the best American play, period.) "It is, it is," Reilly told Jackson. "It's like running in front of a train. The power of the play—you have to be up to it. You have to rise to the challenge." She smiled at that. "Well, you did, you did," she replied. Why would any actor in his right mind climb the mountain of iconic memories that Marlon Brando left in the role? "They asked me," Reilly responded simply. "It took me almost a year to decide whether I was going to go for it or not. I'm glad that I finally did because, you know, they say, `No guts, no gain.' There's nothing worth doing that's easy to do. That's been the pattern of my whole career—taking things on that seem slightly beyond my ability, beyond what I thought I could do. This is certainly one of those."

For Reilly, to get to Stanley Kowalski meant—gumption aside—trading up from Harold Mitchell. He was "Mitch" in his previous brush with Streetcar, at Steppenwolf in Chicago. Chris Bauer makes his Broadway debut in this production playing the part, a gullible drone easily duped by Blanche's calculated charms. "It feels amazing, exactly like I hoped it would," he said. "I feel so lucky to make my Broadway debut in such a great play. The other actors in the play, the director—I'm pinching myself all the time."

Nor is this the first time Amy Ryan has caught Streetcar. She was Stella to Patricia Clarkson's Blanche and Adam Rothenberg's Stanley last year for the Kennedy Center Salute to Tennessee Williams. "I feel like my other sister came to town, and I got remarried," she said of the contrast. "That's what it feels like. I had to unlearn almost everything—I'm sorry, that's not the right answer." She paused, thought and tried again. "I just started over. The stuff I tried to recreate didn't quite work because they're such different people around me. This time I learned to play the love at all times, get rid of my frustration toward Blanche, just play the love. In Washington, I was doing other things." She wore a black, strappy, Calvin Klein gown, upstaged by a gardenia in her hair a la Julie Wilson.

Roberta Maxwell, present just as an audience member, remembered doing scenes from Streetcar once, opposite Carrie Nye's Blanche, up at Williamstown—for the author. "Tennessee loved it. He said, `Ah always said Blanche was the funniest character I ever wrote.'" But there were a lot of moist eyes-of-the-beholder who would beg to differ. A kind-faced, gray-haired presence named John Carver—who more than held his own with Rosemary Harris, Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard in the last Broadway go-around of A Delicate Balance—is particularly well cast in this production in a bite-sized bit as the recipient of one of the most heart-breaking lines in theatre history, "Whoever You Are" (as in, "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers").

Weighty closing lines could become a specialty with Streetcar's director, Edward Hall, whose only other Manhattan offering was the sprawling historical epic, Rose Rage, which ended with the first line of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent..." "I think every play ends with a new beginning," opted the 38-year-old son of Sir Peter Hall. "Plays don't usually end. They come to the beginning of something else. "The first play I ever directed was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I had no idea what it was about, but I knew it was brilliant. The same applies to Streetcar, really. I didn't know what it was about until I started rehearsing it. I think, with great pieces of writing, that's the case—and that's what attracts me to them. If I know how the day is going to turn out when I get out of bed in the morning, then I usually get bored very quickly, but, if I'm not sure whether I'm going to make it, then I'm interested. And this play has got to be one of the most challenging pieces of work I've ever undertaken."