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Loss of Faith

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Had director Emily Mann bothered to delve into the complexities of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she might have given us a new perspective on the play and the characters. Instead, she’s content to use non-traditional casting (aka a mixed-race cast) more as a gimmick to attract a broader audience demographic than as a springboard for illuminating a classic American play.

The Public Theater has been using race-blind casting for years to great effect, so to any theatergoer the casting is non-news. To anyone new to one of the great American plays of the 20th century, the workmanlike recitation of the text and the largely unimaginative staging only gives the barest glimpse of its riches.

More is the pity when one considers that Mann has enlis

ted such forceful and charismatic actors as Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, and Daphne Rubin-Vega to play the lead roles. The story of how Stella and Stanley Kowalski (here with the surname removed) respond to the arrival of Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois, and her descent into madness and tragedy is an archetypal story of illusion collapsing in the face of reality’s grinding intrusion. (For a glimpse of how these themes can be played, go see the extraordinary revival of “Death of a Salesman” at the Barrymore.)

As Blanche, Parker has all the mannerisms that go with the character but none of the depth, none of the adamant denial that has been her survival mechanism, rendering the performance shallow and undeveloped. Dressed in Paul Tazewell’s costumes, she looks beautiful to be sure, but with all this new finery, no wonder Stanley wonders where the family money went.

Underwood is powerful but with none of the underlying vulnerability that drives Stanley. His final act rape of Blanche is angry enough, but it lacks its ultimate truth –– that brutality is his only way of exerting power over a woman who worked to emasculate him from the moment she walked through the door. When Stanley shouts up to Stella in the upstairs neighbors’ apartment –– his greatest moment of need –– he’s upstage with his back to the audience. A moment that makes him sympathetic even in the face of his brutishness is obscured and the production is severely undermined.

Rubin-Vega does the best she can with Stella, but we never really understand emotionally what it is about Blanche that has made her sister so protective of her –– even though it’s all in the script. Parker and Underwood’s limited performances give her little to play off, and she often seems alone in the midst of everything.

Finally, Wood Harris as Mitch, Blanche’s would-be love interest, is miscast. He’s a handsome man, and Mitch is not. The point of the scenes where Blanche tells him he’s “strapping” is that Mitch is not, that he almost falls into her trap about her romantic and exotic life that ultimately he can’t square with a past filled with sexual and financial desperation.

The real tragedy of this production are the squandered talent and the fact that audiences may never know what a remarkable play this is. You needn’t worry about missing this “Streetcar.”

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE | Broadhurst Theatre | 235 W. 44th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49.50-$131.50 | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

Everything you need to know about why “Leap of Faith” is a million-dollar misfire happens in one exchange in the first 15 minutes. Marla, the town sheriff of Sweetwater, confronts itinerant preacher Jonas Nightingale, who has planned a revival in the town, insisting that her wheelchair-bound son Jake, is not “crippled,” but rather “disabled.” Then she makes a Helen Keller joke.

Janus Cercone and Warren Leight have written a disjointed and derivative book that achieves the almost unthinkable feat of making a high-octane, gospel-infused story a soporific disaster. Eschewing character development for cheap shorthand emotional point-scoring, the show liberally lifts its out-of-town-charlatan-gets-upright-girl plot from “The Music Man” and “110 in the Shade,” without any of their heart or humanity.

Add to this Alan Menken’s overly simplified power ballads and pastiche gospel songs and Glenn Slater’s unsophisticated lyrics (“If you’re on the bus, get on the bus.”), what could potentially have the power to rouse even the most committed skeptics out of their seats instead inspires them to slump down, cover their face with the program, and hope, as one lyric unoriginally proclaims, that “this too shall pass.”

In a good musical, the songs take us deeper into the characters. Here, we get two songs where Jonas and Marla simply trade barbs –– “Fox in the Henhouse” and “I Can Read You.” This is a device borrowed from “Annie Get Your Gun,” but in that show “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” sets up the competition between Annie and Frank that becomes the show’s driving conflict, revealing their essential character. Not here. This is a reality show slap down between people we don’t know enough about to care for.

“Leap of Faith” is all the more disappointing because Raúl Esparza plays Jonas with his characteristic zeal. His performance may not be big enough for a revival preacher, even a phony one, but he’s sure working hard. Jessica Phillips as Marla has a sensational voice, but her relationship with Jonas goes from “I hate you” to “I love you” with no intermittent stops. Plus, as a character who sings that love “isn’t in the cards” anymore, she spends the second act in a provocative sheriff outfit suggesting she expects love on every corner. Coherence and logic absent, boredom rushes in.

The rest of the cast is actually very good, with the exception of Leslie Odom, Jr., whose reedy voice and self-effacing performance –– and he’s the bad guy! –– keep this would-be preacher’s light stashed well under the proverbial bushel. Dull as it is, Odom’s performance is really the fault of director Christopher Ashley, who presumably was hampered by the book, since his work on “Memphis” showed he certainly knows how to find real people even in the artificiality of a musical.

There’s a lot of God on Broadway right now. Sad to say, with the exception of “The Book of Mormon,” there isn’t any of it that isn’t god-awful.

LEAP OF FAITH | St. James Theatre | 246 W. 44th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $47-$137.50 | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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