The Desire of the title is the same section of New Orleans that Tennessee Williams once sent a streetcar to, and as with Williams the word also refers to the undercurrent of conflicting needs that drives its central characters.
Writer-director Jackie Alexander structures his uneven but absorbing comedy-drama as the inverse of Williams' humid classic. Instead of the faux-genteel Blanche coming to stay with the underclass Kowalskis, we have a black Katrina survivor and ex-con named Willie (Shane Taylor) seeking refuge at the posh East Hampton home of his cousin Ty (Wendell B. Franklin) and Ty's wife, Angela (Kellie E. McCants). For a man who has lost everything, Willie is suspiciously cheerful, leading Ty to suspect that his cousin has actually escaped from prison instead of merely being out on parole, as he claims. Again like Williams, this triangle creates a dynamic that brings uncomfortable truths to light — not just about Ty's imperfect past but about the continuing problems of race and class in America.
Escaped criminal or no, the outspoken Willie is a kick in the pants, and Taylor's exuberant performance goes a long way toward holding this production aloft. Franklin's part is relatively thankless, but he handles it with the requisite uptightness and chagrin. Almost every character reads him the riot act at some point, and he's such a catalogue of human foibles that he almost becomes endearing. McCants has less to do as Ty's long-suffering wife, but her evil-looking slow burn is a wonder to behold.
Alexander has a weakness for platitudes that occasionally rears its ugly head; worse, he stumbles badly in his treatment of the white characters, especially the women. As Bob, Ty's polo-shirted boss, Anthony Sandkamp is about as Caucasian as humanly possible, but at least he's recognizably human. The same can't be said for Bob's wife, Marlene (Heidi Kristoffer), or Ty's mistress, Jillian (Kerrie Miller) — interchangeable bits of blond fluff who make Paris Hilton look like a Talmudic scholar. That said, the Ty-Willie conflict is the real meat here, and as long as Willie is on stage telling it like it is, The Desire makes for a satisfying meal.
Presented by and at the Billie Holiday Theatre,
1368 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NYC.
May 6-June 24. Schedule varies.
(718) 636-0918 or www.thebillieholiday.org.