The funniest thing about Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire, currently playing an Off-Broadway engagement at the Soho Playhouse, is its title. Written and performed by Mark Sam Rosenthal, the work debuted at the New York International Fringe Festival last year where it was well received. Unfortunately, its one-joke premise wears thin quickly and the solo show feels far too long at just 70 minutes.
As might be surmised, the work riffs on the character of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. At the opening of the piece, a man is sifting through the rubble of what we assume is a hurricane devastated home in New Orleans. (Kelly Tighe provides the piles of junk that make up the set.) He discovers a blonde wig, puts it on, and begins channeling Blanche, who tells the audience about her travails in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as she spends time with other refugees in the Superdome, and awaits her relocation into a FEMA trailer, all the while trying to remember what happened to her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley.
The script incorporates flowery passages that are meant to invoke and/or parody Williams’ writing, as well as some of the more obvious Streetcar jokes such as Rosenthal’s Blanche crying out to her sister desperately in a Marlon Brando imitation.
While the show criticizes the government’s slow response in aiding the victims of Hurricane Katrina, it’s a fairly superficial treatment of the subject. It also undercuts any kind of serious message with a large number of politically incorrect jokes about race that are not only not very funny, but leave a bad aftertaste. Moreover, the framing device involving the man finding the wig is not very effective as we don’t find out anything about him or why he’s there.
Rosenthal’s performance is animated, but never reaches the over-the-top campy heights which would make the show more engaging, nor the tragic depths that would make us feel for Blanche’s plight. Moreover, as Angelina Margolis’ costume design does not provide him with any kind of feminine clothing — he’s dressed in a tank top and camouflage shorts for the majority of the performance — Rosenthal also faces an uphill battle in creating a successful illusion of inhabiting Blanche DuBois.
His best moment is late in the play, as Blanche addresses a gay and lesbian Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It’s both funny and sad, even if it isn’t as poignant as Rosenthal probably intended.