BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Brought to Broadway by the same producers who delivered that African-American version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” several seasons ago, “A Streetcar Named Desire” now arrives at the Broadhurst Theater performed by a mostly African-American company.
Smoothly and swiftly staged by Emily Mann, this latest production of Tennessee Williams’ enduring classic about Blanche, the tattered butterfly, and Stanley, the brute who destroys her, is not revelatory but proves to be reasonably satisfying.
The most striking component in the handsome revival is Nicole Ari Parker, the “Soul Food” star who makes an auspicious Broadway debut as Blanche. Willowy and naturally elegant, Parker’s Blanche is a soft, pliable creature who has bent once too often to the ill-winds of bad luck that has finally blown her to New Orleans, where she takes shelter with her married sister Stella.
When the overly-fanciful Blanche’s vulnerable roots finally are exposed, her fall into madness may not be very far but remains touching, thanks to the sweet gentility inherent to Parker’s characterization.
The show’s weakest link proves to be the Stanley portrayed by “L.A. Law” hunk Blair Underwood, a strapping actor whose well-exposed biceps look far more powerful than his performance. Underwood is confident onstage but not compelling or multi-layered in character as Stanley, who simply appears to be a short-tempered mug resentful of his sister-in-law Blanche’s hoity-toity airs. Underwood tends to pitch up his voice during Stanley’s heated moments, which undermines the character’s machismo aura.
Little chemistry sparks between Parker and Underwood, but even that lacking seems understandable given their self-absorbed characters’ vast differences as individuals. Comedy more than sexual tension generally arises from their mismatched natures here.
Daphne Rubin-Vega lends her smoky voice and well-grounded presence to Stella, who she depicts as being usually more protective of her sister than enthralled by her husband. An understated Wood Harris gives Blanche’s admirer, Mitch, a nicely boyish quality that curdles into bitter disillusionment. Carmen de Lavallade puts a spooky spin on the flower-seller, while Jacinto Taras Riddick and Matthew Saldivar add earthiness to the poker party scenes.