Primal Force

Joe Manganiello in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Yale Repertory Theatre (Yale Repertory Theatre / September 28, 2013)

The show: Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven

What makes it special: The show features Joe Manganiello from HBO's "True Blood" as Stanley Kowalski.

First impressions: There's always been humor in Williams' "Streetcar" but in Mark Rucker's out-of-whack production of this American classic, it's practically a laugh riot, what with the heavy hand on the sneak-a-drink situations, the there-goes-Blanche-again looks and the big-galoot posturing.

Still, René Augesen manages to bring a measure of resilience and anguish as Blanche DuBois, and Sarah Sokolovic makes one stellar Stella. And though it's clear to see why Stella has the hots for her man, Manganiello lacks danger and dimension in his depiction of the primal protector of his domain.

But he's so...imposing: That he is. And though that physicality is impressive in a contemporary context, it's disconcerting in a 1947 world. Stanley's primary exercise, after all, is bowling and the six-pack he covets most is that of beer.

On the page the character's power is not centered on his abs but rather on the stunning confidence of knowing who he is and his comfort in his own skin. Manganiello has a boyish likability, sexiness and swagger, but the layers of cunning and cruelty, childlike joy and hurt, brutality, alpha pride and entitlement are only indicated, not inhabited.

It also doesn't help here that this Stanley is dressed like a period fashion plate, with clothes that are crisp, spotless and runway ready. What slovenly abandon the script demands on occasion comes across as forced and awkward amid the arms akimbo/thumb-in-belt poses.

Danger isn't in the air here but rather the exasperation of having an annoying houseguest stay too long. At times it's like an episode of "The Kowalskis."

Hunh?: At times there's a borderline sitcom style of playing, beginning with Blanche's arrival seeking refuge at Stella and Stanley's shabby two-room home on the wrong side of the trolly tracks. Yes, there's humor in the play but it's a question of degree here. And overall tone is also an issue.

In what way?: The production's atmospheric touches are odd and abrupt, whether it's a clunky version of the raffish side of New Orleans or the unnecessary depiction of the goings on at a ghostly "Belle Reve," the plantation estate that the sisters' family lost.

And what of that famous houseguest?: Augesen gives an assured, multicolored performance of a woman on the brink of a breakdown but who is still able to summon the strength to rally herself in order to survive. She has resiliency, robust determination and insightful awareness amid her delicacy and delusions. But some of William's lyricism is sacrificed for a more conversational approach, making the character more credible but also denying the audience the opportunity to be touched fully by her poetic soul.

Augesen's bruised belle is best when playing off Sokolovic's grounded, lucid Stella, a woman who, too, has a clear sense of self though still conflicted with the past that her sister represents. Her divided loyalties are the most heartbreaking moments in the production.

Adam O'Byrne as Mitch, Stanley's poker playing buddy and a potential suitor for Blanche, gives a tender performance of another kind of lost and lonely soul.

Who will like it?: Undiscriminating "True Blood" fans.

Who won't?: Those looking for a revelatory "Streetcar."

For the kids?: Let them go to "The Glass Menagerie" instead.

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Misguided "Desire."

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: There's a moment in the play where the entire set depicting the two-story Elysian Fields building where Stanley and Stella live moves, groaningly, several yards stage left. The aim of this Herculean effort is to give the audience a more central view of the famous staircase scene —- where Stanley shouts out to his wife to return home to him after she flees following an episode of drunken violence.

It's an incredible undertaking —- for a questionable purpose. The same can be said of this production.

The basics: The show plays at University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven through Oct. 12. The running time is 3 hours, with two intermissions. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm. with matinees on Saturday at 2 p.m. There is an additional Wednesday matinee at 2 p.m. on Oct. 2. Tickets are $57 to $98. Information: 203-4342-1234 and http://www.yalerep.org.

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