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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Four high-profiled revivals have attempted to do this ever since the 1955 play's original and most successful production provoked audiences with its inferences of sexual perversity. None of the revivals, however, lasted more than four months despite some stellar casting coups. The last one in 2008 featured an all-Black cast that was most notable for giving the incomparable James Earl Jones a chance to huff and puff, bellow and to berate those in his presence, as Big Daddy.
In this fifth revival, a good case is made for giving an extended vacation to this fine play unless there is a clear enough urgency and vision behind it. Director Rob Ashford, best known as a director/choreographer (How to Succeed. . .Promises, Promises) appears to be still in the process of envisioning how to gain control of this famously feral Cat. . . the play that Williams saw as revealing "the extremities of human emotions." While that part is in evidence, the actors at the performance I saw gave the appearance of being lost if not egregiously misplaced by Ashford within the extremities of designer Christopher Oram's dreamily impressionistic setting — an immense bed-sitting room showing a section of the wrap-around veranda.
Ashford is certainly fortunate to be working with a more than competent cast that includes Scarlett Johansson as Maggie, Ciarán Hinds as Big Daddy, Benjamin Walker, as Brick, and Debra Monk as Big Mama, each of whom deserve to be seen and heard at their very best. . .notwithstanding the obligatory and overly compensatory display of Walker's admirably toned torso semi-wrapped in a towel.
There is no doubt that Johansson's shapely curves are also going to turn a few heads in her direction as she sashays around in her slip during her lengthy motor-mouthed opening rant. But it would even be hard for Venus de Milo to compete with a virile guy maneuvering a crutch while adjusting his towel around his crotch down stage center. Walker eventually does find his way into the otherwise stultifying Brick's inebriated brain to make him a credible object of Maggie's desire. Deservedly earning praise for his titular performance in the short-lived musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson> Walker is obliged to add some exhilarating dramatic sparks in a climactic scene he shares with Big Daddy.
The urgency for this production seems to have been to provide a showy vehicle for film star Johansson since she won a Tony for her performance in A View From the Bridge. If Johansson's throaty voice often soundes muffled and hoarse, it could be due to the strain of being heard in the Richard Rodgers Theater, which may simply not be a good venue for intimate theater. Despite the crutch these days of electronic voice control, others in the cast felt the need to shout While initially mired by the obligatory shout-outs and by being up-staged, her performance builds in power stealthily and determinedly like a purposefully sly puss. Johansson is undoubtedly a gifted actor who will undoubtedly adjust to or more likely use to her advantage the obstacles with which she has to contend.
It is also plain that the principal actors can be seen working hard to wrench out the underlying honesty, the savage humor and the genuine compassion of their characters. To this end, they each get their turn hoping we will respond to their various stages of guilt, greed and mortality.
In fact, there are enough exciting displays of guilt, greed and mortality to fuel some of the most exciting scenes in all dramatic literature. The plot, overflowing with talk of sexual perversity and familial rivalry, concerns the attempts of Maggie to get her husband Brick back in the sack, not an easy task since Brick has taken to drinking himself into a stupor since he discovered that Maggie slept with his best friend, whose sexual preference was apparently being put to a test. Disgusted by and with Maggie, Brick is equally unwilling, unlike the rest of the family, to either cow-tow to Big Daddy or connive for control of the family estate.
In general, it is for the supporting casting cast to keep this Cat on its feet. Interestingly Hinds is an Irish-ized Big Daddy who is not only formidable but downright ferocious as the despot of the Delta. His bellowing and bursts of disdain and condescension for everyone except for Brick and Maggie are only a warm up to the physically rough and tumble encounter he has with Brick.
The most emotionally affecting performance in this production is by Debra Monk as Big Mama. Monk, renowned for her stage and TV performances, displays all the essential attributes of the Dixie-bred steel magnolia matriarch, graciously laughing through a barrage of humiliations.
Other impressive performances include the funnily pathetic portrait that defines Emily Bergl's inquisitive Sister Woman, and the nervously distraught performance of Michael Park, as Gooper, her greed-driven husband. But why a dark blue suit on hot summer day? Also, why does director Ashford have Mae and Gooper's four obnoxious no-neck-monsters line up facing the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" to Big Daddy?
It seems odd that Ashford, a noted choreographer, would find that his biggest obstacle is in the blocking, staging and movements of a rather large cast. This is a plantation that is definitely overrun by the patter of too many misplaced feet.
For more about Tennessee Williams and his work, including links to other productions of Cat. . . that Curtainup has reviewed, see our Williams Backgrounder
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