March Madness of Plays

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Editor’s note: This is one installment in a ten-part March Madness series. These rankings were voted on by The Daily Californian arts & entertainment staff.

The competitors for best play-to-screen adaptation were a varied bunch. There are some, such as “Fences,” that are better known as movies, and others, such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” that are better known for their original stage formats. Then, there are a handful of adaptations that one would have never guessed were connected to theater in the first place, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Casablanca,” the latter of which was based on an unproduced play titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” Despite the relative unimportance of their theatrical counterparts, however, these well-known films swept through the first round, beating out lower seeds such as “Betrayal.” A notable exception to this was the loss of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a 1992 film with one of Alec Baldwin’s most iconic monologues, to the HBO movie “The Normal Heart.”

Perhaps the closest fight of this first round was between two American classics: “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman.” But when considering the film adaptations instead of the plays themselves, it’s no surprise that the film version of Tennessee Williams’ high-strung drama about the fall of a Southern belle came out on top, leaving the story of Willy Loman and his family in the dust. Arthur Miller wasn’t knocked out completely, however, as “The Crucible” made it through at least one round before conceding defeat to “Fences.”

With that win, “Fences” rightfully took its place in the final four, facing off against older works such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). The success of “Fences,” both in this competition and in the eyes of critics and awards shows, is refreshing for many reasons. Not only is it one of the few modern works to make it past the first round, but it’s also the only production in this spread that doesn’t revolve around the experience of a white protagonist (unless one counts Chief Bromden, who plays a prominent role in the original “Cuckoo’s Nest” novel but is pushed aside in the film to make more room for Jack Nicholson). Unfortunately for “Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Fences” proved victorious and moved on to the final round.

On the opposite side was none other than Williams’ “Streetcar,” whose Southern belle protagonist Blanche DuBois, beat out Martha of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in a somewhat surprising but not unwelcome matchup — both characters are notable for their major storylines involving alcoholism. Regardless of this outcome, the success of both plays reveals the universal truth of dramatic theater: Audiences are extremely familiar with stories of dysfunctional relationships and excessive alcohol use.

In the end, “A Streetcar Named Desire” was crowned the best adaptation of a straight play. Although “Fences” also had a cast of incredible actors, the performances given by Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski have become quintessential examples of method acting, changing the game for American film and influencing generations to come. While Williams’ win may not have been expected among worthy, influential and more modern contenders, it was satisfying all the same.

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Lauren Sheehan-Clark covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].