Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Stage

New York revival of 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' falls flat

RECOMMENDED READING


NEW YORK

If the first rule of theater is to be understood, then Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has problems on Broadway. Yeah, Maggie the Cat and her husband, Brick, the patriarch Big Daddy and the rest of their Mississippi Delta clan have syrupy drawls, but that's no excuse for all the dialogue that gets lost in this inept revival, directed by Rob Ashford.

The Tennessee Williams classic was packaged for Scarlett Johansson to play Maggie, following her supporting-actress Tony-winning turn in another golden oldie, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. So you might expect that the Hollywood star was to blame for what I scrawled in my notebook after a performance several weeks ago: "Vocally deficient!" But you would be wrong. Johansson is actually passable, if not exactly memorable, as the sexually avid but frustrated wife, scorned by in-laws because she and Brick are childless. At least I could hear her from my orchestra center seat. The same could not be said for much of the rest of the cast.

And if you can't make out the language of Williams' play, then what is the point? Ciaran Hinds in particular seemed sadly out of his depth as Big Daddy, Brick's father who has cancer. His florid speeches demand a vigorous, death-defying gusto, as the Southern planter who presides over "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile" and doesn't intend to let it go easily to his children. But the Irish character actor barely registered, as if he was speaking from a vast distance.

I suppose there is some justification for Benjamin Walker's recessive, withdrawn portrayal of Brick. After all, the former football star constantly has a drink in hand, and the unspoken theme of the play is his homosexuality, as suggested by his friendship with (and possible betrayal of) a teammate named Skipper, who died. But Walker, a strapping matinee-idol type who starred in the chic musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, spends a lot of the play wrapped in a bath towel, hobbling around on a crutch, and he's no match for the jibes of Johansson's Maggie, who famously declares that her husband has "the charm of the defeated." But there's none of that in Walker's frozen-up Brick.

Johansson, wearing just a plain white slip much of the time, is a sultry presence, and she has her moments, especially in the pauses between dramatic eruptions, as she smokes, jiggles a leg and complains to Brick while brushing her hair in front of a mirror, the very picture of sexual repression. However, the chemistry between the two actors is virtually nonexistent. A similar gulf yawns between Johansson and Maggie's kindred spirit, Big Daddy, because of Hinds' misconceived performance.

Debra Monk doesn't find the poignancy in Big Mama. Michael Park and Emily Bergl play Gooper and Mae, Big Daddy's other son and his annoying wife, whose brood of children are called "no-neck monsters" by Maggie.

Ashford, best known for directing musicals, such as Promises, Promises in 2010, and scenic designer Christopher Oram created a grand stage picture. Almost all the action takes place amid long, billowing curtains and high windows looking out on the veranda of Maggie and Brick's domain, dominated by a giant bed.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof gets revived a lot. There were Broadway productions in 2008 (an African-American cast, with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy), 2003 (with Ashley Judd as Maggie) and 1990 (Kathleen Turner was Maggie).

But what most people remember is the 1958 movie with Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and the great Burl Ives, though when I went back and took a look at it, some of the changes made to accommodate '50s morality looked ludicrous. Any hint of homosexuality in the account of Brick and Skipper's relationship was excised, and Brick and Big Daddy have an epic truth-telling reconciliation in the mansion's basement.

Still, Newman and Taylor are marvelous (and gorgeous looking), and the titanic performance by Ives is what really makes the movie, with Big Daddy's scenery-chewing speeches on "mendacity" carrying tremendous punch.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which premiered in 1955, is one of Williams' best plays, and in the end I got more pleasure from simply reading it than I did from taking in the Broadway show or even the old movie. I was struck, for example, by how prescient Williams was in characterizing things like Brick's alcoholism.

"It's like a switch, clickin' off in my head. Turns the hot light off and the cool one on, and all of a sudden there's peace," he has Brick say, trying to explain to Big Daddy why he drinks.

Is there a more vivid, concise evocation in theater of the dynamic of alcoholism? Not that I know of, and I was reminded of that in the same week as I saw Williams' play, when I also caught Water by the Spoonful, receiving its New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre.

Closed now, this is a compelling work, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, that should have a long life at regional theaters. It is about, among other things, an Iraq veteran estranged from his mother, a recovering crack addict who spends hours online in a Narcotics Anonymous chat room. She and other participants in the program speak smartly about issues of addiction and recovery, and the impact on the family, but I must say that their language pales in the face of Williams' pungent eloquence.

When it comes to family dysfunction, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the top of the heap. It's a shame the current Broadway production comes up so short.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

Comments
It’s a Doo Wop holiday at the Show Palace

It’s a Doo Wop holiday at the Show Palace

HUDSON — Music brings the Rudolph family together in A Doo Wop Christmas, which opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 25 at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre.This new production, directed by Peter Clapsis (The Great American Trailer Park Musical) with m...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/18/17
What’s on stage this week: Benji Brown, ‘No Man’s Land’ on screen, Florida Orchestra does Bruch

What’s on stage this week: Benji Brown, ‘No Man’s Land’ on screen, Florida Orchestra does Bruch

KIKI OR BUST: BENJI BROWNWherever Benji Brown goes, Kiki follows. The comic, known for his work on the Rickey Smiley Morning Show, created the fast-talking female character on the fly when he called a girl’s house in high school and her boyfriend pic...
Published: 11/15/17
American Stage’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is just what the love doctor ordered

American Stage’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is just what the love doctor ordered

ST. PETERSBURG — A centuries-old template for the rom-com as we know it and one of Shakespeare’s most produced comedies, Much Ado About Nothing comes to us at a time when we can really use some love conquering all. Just what the love doctor ordered, ...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/15/17
Review: With a fine script, Stage West cast puts on a great show in ‘Baggage’

Review: With a fine script, Stage West cast puts on a great show in ‘Baggage’

Okay, I’ll admit I went into the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill on opening night of the comedy Baggage expecting another June/moon/spoon romance-comedy. And sure enough, that’s just the way it started.A man and a woman grab ea...
Published: 11/10/17
Updated: 11/16/17
From stickup to stand-up, bank robber's second act is comedy

From stickup to stand-up, bank robber's second act is comedy

TAMPA — He had dreamed about returning to comedy in odd moments, between meetings with the lawyer, the lonely trip to the correctional institute, picking up trash on state roads while a guard stood by with a rifle. This nightmare would make him...
Published: 11/10/17
Updated: 11/12/17
Sammy Hagar talks Clearwater concert, tequila and Van Halen drama

Sammy Hagar talks Clearwater concert, tequila and Van Halen drama

The Red Rocker calls on time, and he is all kinds of fired up."Hey, Jay, Sammy Hagar here. Are you ready for me?"Is anyone ever truly ready for a phone call from Hagar, the flame-haired, motor-mouthed ex-Van Halen singer who once dubbed himself the C...
Published: 11/09/17
Updated: 11/12/17
What’s on stage this week: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in Key West, Travis Wall Shaping Sound

What’s on stage this week: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in Key West, Travis Wall Shaping Sound

AMERICAN STAGE: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHINGTwo couples nearly come apart at the seams for different reasons, the premise for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, opening at American Stage. This version is set in Key West in the 1940s, the end of World Wa...
Published: 11/08/17
Updated: 11/15/17
Review: ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ at Stageworks

Review: ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ at Stageworks

At the beginning of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion acknowledges that the audience might not want to hear her story because we don’t think it could happen to us."It will happen to you," Didion says with a rueful smile, and of course she’s r...
Published: 11/06/17
Updated: 11/07/17
What's on stage this week: 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' Florida Orchestra milestone concert, John Cleese

What's on stage this week: 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' Florida Orchestra milestone concert, John Cleese

STAGEWORKS: MINING GRIEF FOR HEALING The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s no-frills memoir of loss and recovery, opens at Stageworks Theatre this weekend. The essayist and screenwriter adapted the one-woman stage play herself. Didion w...
Published: 11/01/17
Updated: 11/08/17
Romantic comedy ‘Baggage’ opens Nov. 9 at Stage West

Romantic comedy ‘Baggage’ opens Nov. 9 at Stage West

The romantic comedy Baggage opens at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Shows will continue at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 19. Phyllis Novack and Bradley Naught...
Updated one month ago