What Becomes A Legend?

You don't revive a great play, it revives you. If done right, that is. You can put the text onstage, but you can't recapture the surprise, the theatrical big bang that creates a classic. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) is arguably the best American play (outside of O'Neill), but never again will there be Tennessee Williams exploding into maturity, Marlon Brando creating a new kind of antihero or Elia Kazan becoming the key director of a golden age. Guys and Dolls (1950) is arguably the best American musical: Damon Runyon's fantasy underworld didn't have to compete with the real world of Gotti and Gambino, Frank Loesser's music and lyrics showed you could make high art out of lowbrows, and Michael Kidd found a new dance language for essential human activities like striptease and shooting craps. In revivals of both these classics last week the score was one bull'seye, one near miss.

The great American musical comedies were happiness machines; what makes this "Guys and Dolls" a delight is that it this. Abe Burrows's Runyon-based book is a domesticated "Threepenny Opera," a dream demimonde of goodly hoods who sling slang rather than guns, slapstick flatfoots, nightclub floozies, high rollers and Holy Rollers. Director Jerry Zaks wisely makes it even more farcical than George S. Kaufman did in the original, shrewdly stylizing this mock-epic of two gamblers, the small-time Nathan Detroit (Nathan Lane) and the big-time Sky Masterson (Peter Gallagher) and their dolls, Miss Adelaide (Faith Prince), Detroit's fiancee of 14 years, and Sarah Brown (Josie de Guzman), the mission girl who thinks she's only after Masterson's soul.

Zaks's headlong pace and Loesser's stunning succession of masterly songs cover the not-quite-perfect casting. The silkysmooth Gallagher lacks raffishness: it's like a Broadway pastrami sandwich with mayo instead of mustard. But he's got a Sinatroid romanticism in his wee-hours anthem "My Time of Day," and he's a fine foil for the beguiling de Guzman as she tipsily sings "If I Were a Bell" in their deliciously improbable Havana interlude. The pint-size, pupet-faced Lane is a love-Prince who lifts the entire show with her stupendously endearing Miss Adelaide. Pathos was never funnier than in Prince's show-stopping rendition of "Adelaide's Lament," a litany of her psychosomatic ills brought about by a protracted state of non-marriage. With her Judy Holliday stare and a voice like a trumpet with a Brooklyn accent, Prince is an exploding star who recreates that big bang.

A young choreographer, Christopher Chadman, does well without adding original twists to dance language. What was blisteringly new in Kidd's famous Crapshooters' Dance in the sewer is now familiar Broadway gymnastics. But the gymnastics are Olympian, with Tony-winner Scott Wise scoring perfect 10s in sewersaulting. The crucial secondary roles are splendidly filled, with Walter Bobbie's Nicely-Nicely Johnson converting (momentarily) a missionful of sinners with the revivalist hymn "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." The greatest moment in "Guys and Dolls" may be the title number, here sung by Bobbie and J. K. Simmons as Benny Southstreet. As this perfect musical-comedy song unrolls in all its lyric wit and melodic rapture, the happiness machine produces a blissed-out high. That's why Broadway was born.

What Jerry Zaks has to do is gladden your heart, but with "A Streetcar Named Desire" director Gregory Mosher needs to break it. This production has its virtues, but heartbreak isn't one of them. The play emanates directly from the tormented, divided psyche of its author. The young Tennessee Williams was in love with poetry; he identified with Hart Crane both as a poet and as a homosexual. In the play the declassee Blanche DuBois embodies Williams's poetic side, her brother-inlaw, the brutish Stanley Kowalski, represents the "rough trade" that Williams was drawn to. But the play is great because it touches complexities almost perfectly expressed in the legendary 1947 production.

In the new version Alec Baldwin's Stanley does well by Stanley's brutishness, his violence and crude humor. What Baldwin lacks is the complexity and ambiguity that Brando had. Brando's brutishness itself had poetic elements, his supermasculinity had feminine overtones. Kazan saw Brando as "bisexual in the way an artist should be: he sees things both as a man and a woman."

Jessica Lange as Blanche actually has more sexuality than Jessica Tandy did in 1947. And Lange captures the lyric element in Blanche's speech, a decayed elegance that makes her the last Scarlett of the old South, a Scarlett bleached to a pale pink. That lost (perhaps never-was) civilization is represented by Belle Reve, the family plantation whose loss has driven Blanche to come to her sister Stella (the admirable Amy Madigan) in New Orleans. Stanley's rape of Blanche is also the destruction ofthe Southern " ideal" by Northern "realism." But for a 1992 audience the social dimensions of the play have receded; its power now lodges chiefly in the psychosexual dynamics of the protagonists.

That's where the lack of heartbreak hurts. The hostility between Baldwin's Stanley and Lange's Blanche is too simple; it lacks the secret complicity that Williams built into their dance of enmity that is also a mating dance. This Stanley and Blanche are not two parts of a mysterious whole. Their clashes almost validate Mary McCarthy's bitchy 1948 review, in which she scornfully dismissed the play as " The Struggle for the Bathroom."

The lyric pathos of Lange's performance is undermined by her too-soft delivery. Since her second-act outbursts reveal plenty of vocal power, it's as if she drops into pianissimo deliberately, challenging the audience to tune in so closely to her that she upsets the play's verbal balance. In her legendary last line, delivered to the psychiatrist who's come to take her away, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," we miss the Ophelia-like poignancy that Vivien Leigh captured in Kazan's film version. This is an honorably tangible "Streetcar," but it's the intangibles that make it a great play.