Passionate Misses

The Play House's Streetcar may leave you desiring more.

Streetcar at the Play House: Mares, Field, and Resnick take on Stella, Stanley, and Blanche.
Streetcar at the Play House: Mares, Field, and Resnick take on Stella, Stanley, and Blanche.
If it weren't for the pesky detail of having to die first, most of us would love to have the power of ghosts, able to float through walls and disregard the barriers between illusion and reality. Of course, upon closer observation, we are all possessed of this ability, since we deftly mix large dollops of fantasy -- "The Browns really are improving," "You were great in the sack" -- into the hard-edged truth of our daily lives.

In the literature of the stage, few characters can match the self-delusion at work inside the disheveled mind of Blanche DuBois, a woman with more flimsy veneers than a dinette store during clearance days. Her pathetic yet hypnotic pathology is once again on display in Tennessee Williams' monument to sexual desire and simple human decency, A Streetcar Named Desire. Due to its many thematic layers and demanding roles, it's a daunting piece for any theatrical company to attempt. But the Play House gives it a respectable showing, even if one vital component of Williams' passionate symphony grates on the ear.

Schoolteacher Blanche arrives at the run-down New Orleans flat (rendered with seamy tackiness by set designer Todd Rosenthal) of her sister, Stella Kowalski, prepared to stay a spell, since she's brought a huge steamer trunk full of duds. This immediately antagonizes Stella's husband Stanley, a bowler and all-around Neanderthal. Unfortunately, the raging undercurrent of sexual tension between Blanche and Stanley is reduced to a trickle, due in large part to Jason Paul Field's one-note Stanley. Wearing his macho bravado like a suit of medieval armor, Field bellows and blusters with gusto, but without a deeper sense of Stanley's insecurities -- so all the yelling seems like someone banging on tin rather than timpani.

As Blanche, Hollis Resnick skillfully modulates her performance, even tossing some lines overboard as she uses condescension and faux sophistication in an attempt to hide the fact that the DuBois family estate has been foreclosed and she has been left to depend on "the kindness of strangers." Her scenes with Kelly Mares, who plays Stella with total honesty, exhibit the whip-smart essence of the playwright's language and his insight into characters. Even though Stella clearly loves her sister and remembers her once-higher status in life, she resists Blanche's attempts to sabotage her marriage; Stella is fully wedded to the sexual gratification she receives from Stanley and, in fact, is pregnant with his child.

Other scenes that throb with the aching futility they deserve are the moments when Mitch, the simple and compassionate poker player in Stanley's inner circle, begins to court Stella. Lucas Rooney brings a sweet gullibility to Mitch, who accepts Blanche as the person she declares herself to be. After sharing pain from their respective pasts (her former husband's suicide, his loss of a previous love), they decide they truly need each other. But Stanley keeps ripping away the illusion, symbolized by the paper lantern shade Blanche purchased to hide a naked light bulb, and Mitch spirals downward to the point of trying to force himself on Blanche in a malicious confrontation.

Michael Bloom, in his first foray as director in addition to his duties as the Play House's artistic director, finds the pulse of many scenes and helps some of the smaller roles -- such as Starla Benford as the upstairs friend, Eunice -- gleam with comic precision. But Bloom leaves other moments mystifyingly shortchanged. The shock of Blanche putting the moves on a newspaper boy and planting a kiss on his lips is muted, since Bloom cast a fellow who looks about 30 to play this callow teenager. Thus, the sequence becomes less an echo of her past dalliances and a window into her tortured soul than a fairly routine failed pickup.

But the major weakness in this Streetcar is the lack of passion that should bring a fascinating dimension to the sparks of hostility that fly between Blanche and Stanley. Stanley's reactions to Blanche are too rote and simplistic, so she seems more like an irritating mother-in-law than a sensual woman who attracts as much as she repels.

Williams makes his intentions clear when, in the first moments of the play, he has Blanche describe her journey to this squalid little corner of the world as riding the "Desire" streetcar, transferring to "Cemetery," and ending up at "Elysian Fields." That pretty well describes the trip we're all on, but in this case a deficit of passion erodes the core of Tennessee's pride. If brevity is the soul of wit, the title of the musical revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change has to be recognized as one of the most succinct summations of interpersonal relationships ever. Indeed, that sentence is so flawless in both structure and meaning that any show that trails along in its wake must inevitably suffer by comparison.

As it turns out, the collection of sketches and songs by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music) is a fairly haphazard compendium of familiar guy-girl clichés set in tunes that, musically, only occasionally rise above the banal. But thanks to relentlessly energetic and inventive performances by a cast of four at Carousel Dinner Theatre, the evening is surprisingly delightful.

Loosely organized around a chronology that extends from a nervous first date to an elderly twosome who meet at a funeral parlor, I Love You pounds away at any number of conventional dating and marital scenarios, but the material and the performers ignite often enough to fashion some truly amusing moments and even, now and then, a flash of insight.

The two women, Jennifer Swiderski and Holly Davis (an understudy who performed on this night), scored early with a smoky rendition of Single Man Drought, smilingly lying to their clueless dates and wishing to be somewhere else, to be a lesbian -- to be anything other than stuck with the loser across the table.

Slender and expressive, Swiderski can belt Broadway style and also does a nice turn in the country-western anthem "Always a Bridesmaid," pulling a can of beer from the bodice of a bridesmaid's dress so hideous, it would cause Mr. Blackwell to retract everything he's said about Britney Spears. Davis also has a number of high points, including a hilarious Jewish mother who keeps her family rolling "On the Highway of Love" and a richly amusing and poignant monologue in "The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz."

The boys are every bit their equal. Gavin Esham essays a number of characters with consistent charm and precision. He's a stitch as a guy trapped at a chick flick with his date, only to collapse in a welter of tears. And in another scene, when his wife asks him to test a gift teddy bear to make sure the eyes don't pose a swallowing danger to their infant, Esham chews on the large plush toy with comical abandon. Mark Sanders delivers the show's best song, "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?", with tender feeling, as his wife of many years keeps her head buried in the morning paper.

One sign of the skill possessed by the cast and director Donna Drake comes before the underwhelming title song in the penultimate scene, when Swiderski and Esham meet by accident as septuagenarians at a wake. Neither overdoes the old-coot shtick in search of easy laughs, and the scene -- which could have easily tipped into farce -- comes off as genuinely sweet. All in all, this production's not as perfect as the title, but there's plenty to love.