Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly in A Streetcar Named Desire(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly in A Streetcar Named Desire
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Edward Hall's production of the brilliantly titled A Streetcar Named Desire begins by ignoring a theater truth: Entrances are crucial. Hall, who has recently begun to make a sterling reputation for himself locally with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Rose Rage, attempts to create the atmosphere of Tennessee Williams' Latin Quarter by dispatching a crowd of actors across Robert Brill's sprawling set with its expanses of filigreed iron railings. Some of this crew roam the aisles of the theater, a convention that's had a hefty workout recently. (The idea is to make the auditorium part of the play's world, but it almost has a negative effect on the theatrical experience.)

Anyway, into this hubbub come Stanley Kowalski (John C. Reilly) and Army buddy Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Chris Bauer), making a quick pass-though. As they leave, Blanche DuBois (Natasha Richardson) arrives. In the published version of the play Williams, who may have occasionally imagined himself as a DuBois type, writes that there is something in the "uncertain manner" of the significantly named Blanche "that suggests a moth." He also notes that her initial speech is delivered "with faintly hysterical humor." This speech, not incidentally, is in response to Eunice Hubbell (Kristine Nielsen) asking, "Are you lost?"

Blanche is indeed profoundly lost for any number of reasons, yet Hall makes a wrong interpretation of the word "lost" by practically losing Blanche in the hullabaloo. There's simply no directorial fanfare for her. Furthermore, Richardson -- whose characteristic strength and intelligence may paradoxically make her wrong for this assignment -- doesn't play the humorous hysteria Williams wants. Happening upon the tenement in which she's shocked to learn that her sister is living, she seems like a momentarily disoriented tourist. Although costume designer William Ivey Long dresses her in Williams' requested white outfit, this Blanche is more of a moth than a steel butterfly.

In other words, Blanche DuBois' entrance -- one of dramatic literature's most stunning arrivals -- is bobbled here. Subsequently, as the tragedy leavened by Williams' puckish humor unfolds, it also has a tendency to unravel. The production rarely rises above a by-the-numbers treatment. Of course, Richardson is too accomplished an actress not to find moments where she can mine touching or disturbing emotions; what is perhaps her best scene occurs when the boy collecting for the Evening Star (Will Toale) appears. "I didn't know that stars took up collections," Williams has Blanche say, and he also has her exclaim "Young man! Young, young, young, young man!" As she says this, Richardson -- with Hall's obvious approval -- takes hold of the young man's hands and twirls him around in a sweet, childlike way.

Blanche's increasingly tense and ultimately destructive interaction with Stanley, who plays the unrelenting realist to her incessant lies-as-truth strategy, is less well done. There are those who'll say that John C. Reilly is miscast -- perhaps some of the same people who've long claimed that Stanley Kowalski is overdue for a post-Marlon Brando reinterpretation. Well, here it is. Reilly isn't a slab of beefcake whom the dipsomaniac-nymphomaniac Blanche recognizes as dangerous because he's so physically desirable; instead, he's your average Joe, relaxing with the fellas at the bowling alley or over a poker game. He's a guy who loves his wife and is savvy enough to realize that Blanche's uppity ways and compulsive dissembling represent a threat to him and Stella (Amy Ryan). The only problem is that when he's incensed, Reilly doesn't sounds less like an average New Orleans Joe than an average Brooklyn Joe. This has the odd effect of turning Stanley into a spiritual brother of -- don't laugh! -- Ralph Kramden. (Deborah Hecht is the dialect coach.) By the way, Brando's N'awlins mumble wasn't authentic, either -- but, given how he looked and behaved, who cared?

Hall does better with Amy Ryan's Stella, a character overshadowed by Blanche and Stanley but, on closer analysis, beautifully observed. Her devotion to her sister and her husband is understandable, and her unsuccessful efforts to create a truce between them is heartbreaking. Ryan, fresh from her savvy portrayal of a troubled mother in On the Mountain, negotiates these scenes extremely well. Chris Bauer's Mitch is also finely executed. Kristine Nielsen is a standout Eunice Hubbell, down-to-earth and compassionate. She's a worthy embodiment of the type of person whom Williams knew would say that life has got to go on and would act accordingly. But though Hall succeeds in guiding these performances and in obtaining atmospheric, lurid lighting from Donald Holder and atmospheric, lurid sound effects and music from John Gromada, he only adds to the impression given this season that English directors are unable to fully realize American scripts.

You know you're in trouble when, instead of being awestruck at Blanche's predicament by the end of Streetcar, you're thinking how much the Williams play is a precursor to The Honeymooners, wherein another bombastic blue-collar worker with a love of bowling and his tolerant wife are friendly with the likeable blue-collar couple upstairs. At one point Stanley accuses Blanche and Stella of acting like two queens when, in his house, he's king. This isn't much different from Ralph Kramden yelling at Alice that he's the king of his castle, but Williams' astonishing play should leave theatergoers with more to think about than this pop-culture comparison.