The Playgoer: REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Sunday, February 03, 2013

REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

If only the current Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featured something as jarring and surprising as a "Ghost Skipper" floating in and out of the background. Despite the understandable ridicule of that eventually discarded idea (which was cut by the time I saw a press performance), I might not have minded such a choice were it part of a bold, expressionistic dream-like reinvention of the play. But director Rob Ashford ends up serving up something much duller--a rudderless stumble-through of a long and flawed play where souped-up visuals try to substitute for drama.

Sara Krulwich, for The New York Times

I suppose I should start with the element that has made this production happen at all--the misguided star casting of Scarlett Johansson as "Maggie The Cat." I say misguided not because Johansson lacks talent or even stage chops. As she proved in her debut in A View from the Bridge, unlike other movie star Broadway novices, Johansson has a natural presence and energy on stage. (Only her voice--no doubt exhausted from delivering her long opening monologue eight times a week--gives away a lack of training. When little Scarlett starts sounding like Kathleen Turner with laryngitis, you know something ain't right.) Scarlett Johansson is not what's wrong with this Cat. If anything, it works against the show that this "star" character is basically only prominent on stage at the very beginning and very end! (That's certainly going to backfire with fans buying tix only to see her...)

No, what's wrong is that you have talented, able actors who are at sea in a script that certainly does not "direct itself." Ashford has put a lot of care into the setting and ambiance. (More on the many dubious "atmospherics" later.) But one doesn't get the sense of much insightful scene coaching in rehearsal.

That opening monologue of Maggie's, for instance, is quite a challenging aria and puts a lot of pressure on the actress to ground everyone in the play. But poor Scarlett seems to have gotten little advice other than "louder, faster, funnier." Even the more seasoned actors suffer from a clear unease and lack of direction. While everyone else in the audience that night seemed there either for our young starlet or seeing "Bloody, Bloody" Benjamin Walker in a towel, I was most looking forward to veteran Irish thesp CiarĂ¡n Hinds as Big Daddy. Anyone familiar with Hinds' stage and screen roles as gangsters and even the Devil himself (in MacPherson's The Seafarer) would expect the ultimate menacing patriarch. Instead, with that wan, weather-beaten face buried under bushy grandaddy whiskers and a Yosemite Sam accent, he's completely de-fanged. And just as Johansson seems completely on her own through her long Act One, Hinds and Walker spend their big Act Two confrontation dully sitting around and talking with occasional random bouts of wrestling.

As for Walker, the very fact I find little to say about him is revealing enough. True, Brick is an awfully hard part--more reactive than active, forced to listen more than talk. But whatever punk rock presence he brought to Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is sorely missing. Like his lean, tall, but frankly unimposing and somewhat delicate bare physique on constant display, Walker conveys little energy, strength or purpose on stage. But again--he doesn't seem to have received much direction other than "keep your shirt off." (And, perhaps conversely: "keep your towel from dropping.")

Ashford--formerly known for direction and choreography of hit musicals--began making a more dramatic name for himself in London, where his "Streetcar" (with Rachel Weisz) was a recent hit at the Donmar. But while the British rightly celebrate Williams, I've noticed they seem to like their Tennessee with a heavy dollop of "Southern Gothic" exoticism. So based on this Cat, I can see why they may have liked about Ashford's style. Here, Brick's little upstairs bedroom becomes a veritable grand ballroom--with a chandelier and several balcony windows encircling his regal bed. The airiness of it all (gossamer walls and high ceilings) is certainly pretty. But it makes it awfully hard to feel sorry for the guy. Or to believe this is a real house, for that matter.

And far more questionable, to my mind, than any visions of Brick's dead admirer is the added presence Ashford gives to the scripted characters of the African American household servants. I'm referring to their singing of black spirituals (!) during the Act Three climax. Now, even though the play is set nearly a hundred years after the Civil War, if one wants to paint Big Daddy as a plantation owner and his estate as some throwback to Dixie and Tara, I'm game if it's meant to add to the feeling of corruption and moral decay in the family. But these slaves servants sure are one happy bunch of Singing Negroes! The elder female maid is seen genuinely caring as she eavesdrops on one of Big Mama's concerned phone calls. And the men smile when they are ordered about by Big Daddy. Perhaps this is Ashford's way of trying to justify these characters and flesh them out.  But wouldn't it be more humanizing to show the truth of their situation--that they are there merely because it is their job?

Now that the (mostly negative) reviews are in (StageGrade average: C-!), it will be interesting to see how the show fares at the box office.  (The production is, after all, a purely commercial enterprise.) Playbill shows the house last week was at 83.5% capacity--not bad for a nonmusical play (oh wait, this is a musical!), but not the 99% I'm sure the producers expected Scarlett Johannson to draw. If what they wanted was a vehicle for her, maybe they should have avoided a three-act, two-intermission(!), talky script, where she's not even on stage half the time.

And I left really thinking the play is not even among Williams' top works. Nothing much happens, Brick is a cypher, and who outside of the family would care about Big Daddy's inheritance anyway? The play lives or dies, therefore, on the dynamism of the acting. And the acting in a meandering, plotless script like this depends more than usual on the directing.

Here's a directorial suggestion, by the way: Cat is basically one long continuous one-act, isn't it, unfolding more or less in real time in that one bedroom. So how about a site-specific, intermissionless staging in an actual upstairs room of a mansion, where the audience is stuck in that room with bedridden Brick, with the cast of eccentric characters popping in and out.

Such speculation, at least, diverted me for much of the performance at the Richard Rodgers Theatre...


Bobby said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful review.
To be honest, the best production I've ever seen of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was at a community theater in Maine (of all places). While I agree it is not one of Williams most important, I had never really thought about how the script is not "actor-proof" or "director-proof" until reading you review.

Anonymous said...

I found Big Daddy's story in Morocco about the naked female child and its sexual implications to be very offensive and disturbing. Regardless of whether the story is true or not, this whole section should be stricken out.

Alfred G. M.D.

Playgoer said...

Thank you for your comment Dr. Alfred. But I believe Big Daddy is offended and disturbed by the incident too. Which is kind of his point in telling the story. Cut it out? It's the most memorable speech in the play! Williams wanted us to know that such things happen in the world. I guess he would not share your concern for the old "decorum of the stage." But such "manners" historically have prevented the theatre from exposing unpleasant truths.

Unknown said...

You are a moron.