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McDormand’s Blanche goes clang in `Streetcar’

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Is there a Blanche in the house?

That's the immediate question you're left with after the Gate Theater of Dublin's new production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which casts last-year's Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand as the famously fragile Blanche DuBois.McDormand generally doesn't project weakness, which explains in part why her portrayal of the savvy Midwestern Marge in "Fargo" was so delightful. Her slender build notwithstanding, the actress communicates quiet control, an unshowy know-how that allowed her to beat the baddies in "Fargo" at their own game.

But not every performer is suited to every part, and the sad fact is that McDormand is pure and simply not a Blanche - Stella maybe, Blanche's sister (whom she, in fact, played in a Broadway revival of the same show 10 years ago), but not the great lady herself.

Tennessee Williams' 1947 classic offers up one of the great collision courses of the American stage, pitting the dreamy, excitable Southerner Blanche against her swaggering Polish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

"We've had this date from the beginning," Stanley tells Blanche late in the play in a highly charged encounter that results in rape.

The play courses with a mounting tension that culminates in the inevitable face-off between the macho Stanley and the almost desperately feminine Blanche.

Or at least it should, in productions that go for the sexual and emotional kill.

Director Robin Lefevre's Dublin version, by contrast, is a wry, tame affair, light on the steamy atmospherics of the sweaty New Orleans streets through which the streetcar clangs, and rife with a wisecracking attitude embodied in Liam Cunningham's paunchy Stanley.

Perhaps Lefevre felt it was unfair to ask his mostly Irish cast to compete with the hothouse theatrics that Americans might bring to the play. But the result is a perversely cool, uninvolving retread of a drama that should be cataclysmic as Blanche's elaborately erected defenses are gradually stripped bare.

It's easy to imagine McDormand as the pregnant Stella, her affections divided between a sister reeling out of control and a sexual dynamo of a husband more intent than ever to assert his own control.

But it isn't just the occasional fluffed line that indicates McDormand's discomfort at graduating to the play's defining role.

Bustling on designer Allen Moyer's set with a trunk full of clothes varied enough to suggest a Louisiana branch of London's famed Harrods department store, this Blanche is too much the pragmatist to hint at the disintegration of a mind that has known its share of distress.

McDormand has fun showing the full extent of Blanche's addictions, her own disclaimers aside. And her sassy ripostes convey a more streetwise Blanche than usually emerges: This woman has, in every sense, been around.

What's missing is that other Blanche - the woman who clings to illusions and prefers the dark because she cannot withstand the harsh glare of truth. Whereas Jessica Lange, the last Oscar-winning inhabitant of this role on stage, unraveled in a way that was wrenching to watch, McDormand seems too self-aware for Blanche's ultimate surrender.

Normally, "Streetcar" leaves performers and audience alike feeling wrung out, so it may be a sign of this production's problems that McDormand appeared at her curtain call all smiles - a Blanche with brio clearly ready to paint the town.