Cate Blanchett, Liv Ullmann, Sarah Ruhl, and Noel Coward on the boards this week
Seen In Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) must be congratulated on bringing international theatre to the US: a case in point is the absolutely terrific production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which runs through December 20 at the Harvey Theatre. It’s interesting that this classic American play has been so beautifully interpreted by an Australian superstar, Cate Blanchett, in the central role of Blanche Dubois, and directed so intelligently by Swedish actress Liv Ullmann in her US directorial debut. The Sydney Theatre Company premiered this production to great acclaim earlier this fall.
Originally seen on a proscenium stage, it took some thinking for set designer Ralph Myers to redesign his unit set so successfully for the Harvey, which has a wide, open playing area normally, with no actual stage per se. Myer’s two-story set evokes the tawdriness of the New Orleans apartment where Blanche comes to live with her sister, Stella, and her sister’s husband, Stanley. The simple, shabby furnishings, with just a curtain to divide the two rooms, are transformed somewhat by the arrival of Blanche with her trunk of fancy dresses and fur stoles. But as Blanche’s nerves deteriorate, so does the state of the apartment with papers, records, clothes, and bottles strewn pretty much everywhere. A metal staircase leads to the neighbors’ upstairs apartment and provides an exterior location for some of the scenes. Action in the upstairs apartment is viewed through a window complete with window shade which goes down when things get too hot in there.
The lighting design by Nick Schlieper accents the shabbiness of the set, with bare light bulbs as the sole source of interior lighting (Blanche tries to soften the light in the bedroom by placing a red Chinese lantern over the bulb). Effects include a lightning storm seen through the windows, with the bulk of the theatrical lighting hung on a grid over the set. Paul Charlier’s sound design combines the ambiance of summer in New Orleans with music and trains screeching by on tracks near the apartment.
Costume designer Tess Schofield creates a world of difference between Blanche and the other characters. Blanche arrives in a perfect summer suit with hat and gloves only to find her sister and the other ladies in simple housedresses, and the men in work clothes or undershirts unless they dress to go out. At the end, Blanche is led away wearing only a slip in a stark contrast to the prim and proper outfit she arrived in. Of course by then, her artifice has been stripped away and trapped in her lies, she has disappeared into a world of memories, wrapped in delusions of her past.
Also in Brooklyn is the very charming production of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter at St Ann’s Warehouse, where it runs until January 3. This is also a foreign import, this time from Kneehigh Theatre in the UK (Cornwall). Based on Coward’s play Still Life, which he adapted into the successful movie entitled Brief Encounter, the story is that of a housewife who falls in love with a doctor when they meet in a teashop at a train station circa 1936. This version has zany, face-paced action on a set that is also continually in motion, with an overhead bridge serving as various locals from the train station itself to an apartment where the lovers meet. The use of video is clever, with actors stepping from the stage directly though a screen and into a filmed version of the same scene, or live actors interacting with the projected images. The design team includes Neil Murray (sets and costumes), Malcolm Rippeth (lighting), Gemma Carrington and John Driscoll (projections), and Simon Baker (sound).
From the looks of things, the designers as well as the actors had a lot of fun with this show, which catapults Noel Coward into the high-tech age while maintaining his signature charm. If Blanche’s nerves are undone by the trains racing by in ‘Streetcar,’ the characters in Brief Encounter are practically knocked off-kilter by the fast zooming trains that continually come through the station. Near the top of the show, they jiggle and wiggle tea cups and all as a train zooms past, setting the tone for a fun evening touched with a bittersweet sadness as the affair comes to a close, and the encounter is altogether too brief.—Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Equipment Vendors Brief Encounter: Sound and video equipment: Sound Associates
Lighting: Hudson Sound and Light
Bridge automation: Showman Fabricators
EOS Lighting Console lent by ETC
Seen on Broadway: The Lincoln Center Theater production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play is housed in Broadway’s oldest theatre, the Lyceum. It’s the perfect place for the show, whose period setting—the 1880s, as electricity was being introduced—matches the antique atmosphere of the venue. Progress and its discontents are a theme of the comedy, which focuses on a doctor (four-time Tony nominee Michael Cerveris) who treats neurotic women for “hysteria,” a medical condition at that time. The treatment, which involves electrical stimulation of the delicate regions, proves wildly popular among his clientele—but neither the women, nor the men in their lives, realize the stress-relieving “paroxysms” for what they are. This includes the doctor’s wife (Laura Benanti, a Tony winner for Gypsy, who, dissatisfied with her life after the birth of their first child, secretly uses the equipment on herself—and begins to feel an unexpected surge of affection for her husband’s first male patient (Chandler Williams), a lovelorn artist who, in one of the show’s funniest scenes, endures/enjoys his own tailor-made treatment.
After the excruciatingly whimsical Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I’d disconnected on Ruhl, but this new play matches the style of earlier shows like The Clean House and Eurydice with more heartfelt substance. (And bigger laughs, too, as the actors, especially Maria Dizzia as one of the doctor’s more avid patients, react to the therapy.) Best known for their musical parts Cerveris (in a rare performance with hair) and Benanti are affectingly awkward as the couple, who little comprehend one another’s needs, at a time when people didn’t know or acknowledge that they had needs. Under the confident direction of Les Waters, they and the rest of the cast, including Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the more knowledgeable wet nurse employed by the doctor, give performances that respond nimbly to the shifts in tone in Ruhl’s work.
There are, perhaps, too many gear changes; after a brisk first act the second act dips in pace, though the design team rallies with a lovely coup that ends the show on a romantic note. Until that time this is the most naturalistic production Ruhl has written, with a handsome two-room set, by Annie Smart, that is ideal for drawing room comedy—one is the living room, and the “next” is the operating theatre. David Zinn’s richly detailed costumes, which require much effort to work around for the treatments to take place, are a constant source of pleasure, as is Russell Champa’s dawn-of-electricity illumination; lighting is referred to often in the text, and Champa’s takes full, yet understated, advantage of the opportunity. Jonathan Bell’s evocative original score is a primary recipient of Bray Poor’s fine sound design. Abuzz with humor and heartache, the vibrator play proves a vibrant work. —Robert Cashill
Equipment Vendors In the Next Room or the vibrator play:
Scenery Fabrication and Show Control: PRG—Scenic Technologies
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates