Tennessee Williams's classic contemporary play, ''A Streetcar Named Desire,'' was a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama and an Academy Award-winning film. It has now become an interesting television movie.
''Streetcar'' was first produced on Broadway in 1947 with Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in the leads. In 1951, Brando and Vivien Leigh led the cast of the movie, a version often shown on television. Now the play is being revived as an ABC Theatre Presentation, with Ann-Margret and Treat Williams in the leads.
If one has not had the good fortune to see Tandy or Leigh, the performance by Ann-Margret in this version of A Streetcar Named Desire (Sunday, March 4, 9-11: 30 p.m.) may seem like a uniquely skillful interpretation of a compellingly vulnerable character. And the performance by Williams may seem like an expert portrait of loutish machismo.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge any actor against the memory of superb performances by Tandy, Leigh, and Brando. But the fact is that while ''Streetcar'' was unforgettable in the hands of those performers, it is merely an interesting try in the hands of Ann-Margret and Treat Williams - interesting but somehow lacking in the fire and passion that Tennessee Williams infused into this character study of the human search for loving relationships.
Williams's play remains as brilliantly poetic as ever, marshaling the forces of beauty and fantasy against the forces of ugliness and reality. Already an acknowledged modern classic, ''Streetcar'' delves into the forces of good and evil in society - exorcising some of the guilt, desire, and fear which partly motivate seemingly ordinary people.
Blanche, played with restrained distraction by Ann-Margret, is a fading beauty, pathetically hiding from reality in a fantasy world. She comes into the New Orleans household of her sister, Stella, a woman managing to make a life for herself in an imperfect reality. Stella is underplayed with simple sensitivity by Beverly D'Angelo.
Stanley, Beverly's husband, is played with blatant sexuality by Treat Williams, who never quite manages the incongruous, delicate nuances that would have made Stanley a believable character. Stanley's friend Mitch, who becomes Blanche's nervous beau, is played so well by Randy Quaid that he will erase any memory of Karl Malden's movie version.
Directed with authentic ''Williamsian'' touches by John Erman, ''Streetcar'' is a noble venture, probably closer to the original play than the movie (which had to conform to 1950s movie taboos). Ironically, neither the original play nor the 1951 film matched the static feel of entrapment imparted by the TV show's stifling set - which so keenly symbolizes the plight of the main characters, trapped in life styles from which they cannot extricate themselves.
Poor Ann-Margret! Her two big moments are accomplished skillfully: her explanation about the suicide of her young husband and the mad scene. But she has to contend with the ghosts of those superb actresses who preceded her. Her performance manages to convey that quality of vulnerability so necessary for the role of Blanche. Unfortunately, there is a bit too much of Stanley Kowalski's earthiness in her performance as well.
The compassionate appeal and lyrical language of ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' give it a universality that transgresses time and place. Although this new version of the play will, I fear, fade from memory long before the previous stage and movie versions are forgotten, it is still an earnest, competent effort , acted and directed with professional skill, if not genius. Anybody interested in theater, in Tennessee Williams, and in the future of televised drama ought to watch.