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I suppose there is some justification for Benjamin Walker's recessive, withdrawn portrayal of Brick.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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.