Thursday, January 17, 2013

'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof': Another Tepid Revival

If you want to get a sense of why Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is considered to be one of Tennessee Williams’s great accomplishments as a playwright, you might be better served by bypassing the current Broadway production and reading a copy of the script instead. 

This is a play that needs a deft hand at the helm, someone who can guide the actors into making subtle and unexpected changes in tone and mannerisms. Despite the grand themes the play wrestles with, at its heart this is a domestic drama.  As members of the audience, we must feel we are eavesdropping on some very painful and personal conversations between husband and wife and between father and son.  These moments of rare honesty occur in short outbursts, a sudden dropping of masks while playing out expected and well-practiced roles. It’s not for nothing that “mendacity” is one of the recurrent themes.      

A current example of how this kind of directing can be seen to powerful effect is in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s handling of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at Signature Theatre.  There the audience is privy to some very private and deeply moving conversations that occur unexpectedly and with little fuss. It is because they are unexpected that we feel their power. 
But the director of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Rob Ashford, is best known for his work as a choreographer and director of musicals—big numbers, big moves, lots of bombast.  There is no subtlety to this overly busy and noisy production, and the shadings and shifts in tone are completely lost. 

In addition, it is essential to have the right actors in the key roles of Margaret (“Maggie the Cat”) and of Big Daddy.  Each of these characters dominates a complete section of the play. 

Act I belongs to Maggie, who has dragged herself up from poverty and has married into a very wealthy family, lorded over by her father-in-law, Big Daddy.  Maggie’s husband Brick has fallen into a state of alcoholism and self-loathing, and blames Maggie for most of his problems.  The two have not shared a civil conversation or a bed for some time, but are now staying at the family manse to honor Big Daddy on his 65th birthday.

Maggie is in their bedroom getting changed and trying to make conversation with her taciturn husband, who has broken a leg and has been holing himself in the room the whole evening, trying to drink himself into a stupor, the “click” that will bring him peace.

In the script of the play, Williams describes Maggie as “a pretty young woman, with anxious lines in her face…[with a] voice [that] is both rapid and drawling.  In her long speeches, she has the vocal tricks of a priest delivering a liturgical chant…”

As played by Scarlett Johansson, unfortunately, the best we can say about her is the opening phrase; she is a pretty young woman.  Now, Ms. Johansson really can act; she did splendidly in the brilliant production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge a couple of years back and walked away with a Tony Award for her efforts.  But she is unable to pull off the role of Maggie the Cat, in whom we need to see the mix of sultriness, intelligence, hunger, and ambition that Vivien Leigh gave to Ms. Johansson’s namesake, that other Scarlett in Gone With The Wind

By design—and because the only other person in the room has precious little to say—Maggie has to own Act I.  Her speeches need to encompass twittery filling-in-the-silent-spaces chit-chat and then shift, with just the right timing and tone, for what should be gaspingly stunning lines, like this one:  “I’m not living with you.  We occupy the same cage.” 

She also has one of the great exit lines of all time, in response to Brick’s sarcasm:

BrickHow on hell on earth do you imagine that you’re going to have a child by a man who can’t stand you?

MaggieThat’s a problem that I will have to work out.

Unfortunately, while the lines may be stunning, Ms. Johansson’s performance isn’t. Indeed, I was rather sympathetic to Benjamin Walker’s exasperated, passive aggressive portrayal of Brick, as his wife rattled on and on like a chattering magpie.

Things liven up somewhat in Act II, which is dominated by CiarĂ¡n Hinds, the Irish actor who has taken on the larger-than-life role of Big Daddy.  Mr. Hinds, whose theater work has been confined mostly to Ireland and England, seems to be the one cast member who is comfortable in the rather cavernous Richard Rodgers Theater.  (Everyone else, including Ms. Johansson, seems to be shouting in order to be heard in the upper reaches of the rear mezzanine.)  I love Act II, with its portrayal of a father and son trying to get at some semblance of truth in a world dominated by falsehoods and subterfuge.  Thanks to Mr. Hinds’s skillful performance, we can see in Big Daddy both the surface crudeness for which he is known, and the (nearly) unconditional love he has for his lost son. 

Much has been made of the relationship between Brick and his dead friend Skipper.  Both Maggie and Big Daddy assume there had been a sexual relationship, and that Brick is in a state of perpetual and unmitigated mourning over the loss of his lover. Mr. Ashford, the director, fed into this interpretation during some previews by having Skipper (Jordan Dean) appear on stage, visible only to Brick.

By opening night, Skipper, I’m told, thankfully disappeared. Which is as it should be.  Brick’s descent into darkness and self-destruction was forged not in sexual longing but in an act of betrayal.  This is a significant theme that Tennessee Williams had previously raised in A Streetcar Named Desire in the character of Blanche, forever haunted by what she views as an unforgivable act of betrayal that led to the death of her young husband many years before.  When this core revelation about Brick occurs in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, it should be a gut-wrenching, but, again, Mr. Ashford has imbued the production with so little variation in tone, that the moment passes and our attention shifts to Big Daddy’s realization of his own impending fate.

Ms. Johansson and Mr. Hinds are required to carry the bulk of the play on their shoulders, while Mr. Walker is there mostly to be talked about and fussed over.  The other roles—notably those of Big Mama (Debra Monk) and Brick’s brother (Michael Park) and sister-in-law (Emily Bergl), parents of the brood of “no-neck monsters,” who are in sycophantic attendance in order to establish their inheritance—are presented as exaggerated stereotypes, and the actors do what they can within the constraints that have been placed upon them.

Regrettably, this production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof neither enlightens nor truly entertains, and a theater season that has been dominated by lackluster revivals continues in that vein.

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