He's only a boy, the newspaper-debt collector who shows up at the Kowalskis' door in "A Streetcar Named Desire," but the longing he triggers in Patricia Clarkson's Blanche DuBois is anything but innocent.
Clarkson pulls off some sort of trick of sensual electricity -- it's as if she can switch it on like a lightning bug -- as she sizes up a prize catch. What's illuminated is a vital facet of Blanche's fragmented psyche, the predatory sexuality that brands her a pariah and dooms her to a life of hopeless delusion.
Clarkson casts the same sort of come-hither haze over an audience in the Eisenhower Theater. Her Blanche is the decorous, fascinating and, yes, funny centerpiece of the Kennedy Center's vivid if uneven mounting of "Streetcar," the first of three major productions in its summer-long festival, "Tennessee Williams Explored."
The interlude with the boy, played by Joshua Skidmore, occurs in a front doorway, in the suggestive half-shadow conjured expertly by lighting designer Howell Binkley. The kiss Clarkson coaxes from him is dewy payback, sweet and well earned. It's also, perversely, the steamiest moment all evening, an indication of the ways director Garry Hynes had yet to go in shaping the sexual tension in the play's pivotal, primal pairing, that of Blanche and Stanley Kowalski.
The admirable qualities Hynes builds into her production -- and there are more than enough to make this an evening worth your investment -- include some very fine work by Amy Ryan as Blanche's sister, the spellbound Stella, and Noah Emmerich's Mr. Cellophane-ish portrayal of Blanche's hulking suitor Mitch. Jane Greenwood's costumes, especially the boas and slips and robes with lacy sleeves and collars for Blanche, and the billowy maternity clothes for Stella, do indeed seem extensions of the performances. The professional polish is reaffirmed in John Lee Beatty's set, which imagines the Kowalskis' digs as a railroad flat with brick-factory walls and wrought-iron shutters that resemble prison bars. (It does radiate a bit too much shabby chic-ness, though.)
That Hynes resorts to pumping into the apartment a continuous cloud of steam suggests how little is generated between her stars. The production feels like an unfinished canvas; the colors are all there, but they don't blend in all the intended ways. A significant problem here is Adam Rothenberg's Stanley. Physically, he's right: angular, lean, broad-shouldered -- and in and out of T-shirts more often than a Calvin Klein model. He's also got a young lion's tense alertness and sense of territoriality; he is persuasive in his scenes with Ryan's compliant Stella, and you understand why she is unable to resist him. Ryan conveys in subtly physical ways how much she adores the wall of protection that Stanley constructs around her, even if she pays a price, in his abusive outbursts and violent streak.
To his credit, too, Rothenberg is not channeling Brando. But what he plays is closer to a snarling Denis Leary than a brooding Stanley Kowalski. His voice rises nasally when he's excited and his big-city accent is one or two degrees too stagy. As if to provide concrete evidence of his "animal's habits," he's made the artificial choice, or been given the odd direction, of scaling a pole in the flat to blurt out those trademark "Stelllllllaaaaaaaaaas!"
The effect of all this is to rob Stanley of some of his masculine threat; he simpers when he should intimidate. Blanche's talk of his caveman antics, of there being "something subhuman about him" sounds here like farcical exaggeration. This Stanley may be rough-and-tumble, but he's nothing close to bestial.
If Hynes was after a new perspective on the clash of wills between Blanche and Stanley, the result is something of limited potency. Clarkson, the fast-rising star of such independent movies as "Pieces of April" and "Far From Heaven," is a formidable presence here, and her performance may not appeal to purists. She is a Blanche with all (well, most) of her faculties, and so she comes across as more of a Steel Magnolia than you may be used to in the role. As the scene with the newspaper boy reveals, she's in full control of her feminine powers. This Blanche wields a brittle sense of humor, and her observations about life in the Kowalski household land like piquant zingers.
In the absence of a powerful sense of menace from Stanley -- the rape scene provokes not a single chill -- this "Streetcar" becomes, in effect, the drama in Blanche's head. This is where Clarkson distinguishes herself. The performance has a poignant arc, and the disintegration of Blanche, first in her confidence, then in her personality, and finally her sanity, is rendered with a touching and growing despondency. Her revelation to Mitch about her teenage marriage and the cruelty with which she condemned her young husband's sexual ambiguity is delivered with palpable pain and despair. This Blanche is a prisoner of her own remorse.
Emmerich's Mitch is an excellent foil, the sort of man who loathes being a mama's boy but lacks the courage to alter his fate. In his big scene, he takes off his jacket to expose sweat rings that begin at his armpits and flow to his waist, a perfect physical expression of his fear and awkwardness. He does a great job of inhabiting a large frame and seeming almost invisible. Ryan's Stella is even better; if the role is sometimes viewed as thankless, she corrects the impression. Stella is caught between Stanley and Blanche, even if her chosen path is never in doubt; Ryan is terrific at communicating the anguish of the helpless.
If the fireworks of this "Streetcar" do not ignite with all the spark and dazzle one comes to expect from this iconic play, there are virtues in this production, most especially in the person of Clarkson, that offer more than a little consolation. When desire is in short supply, intelligence and taste will certainly do.
A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Garry Hynes. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Scott Lehrer; movement, Karma Camp. With Amy McWilliams, Michael John Casey, Tony Simione, Cynthia Benjamin, Robert Michael McClure, Catherine Weidner. Approximately three hours. Through May 30 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.