Theater Reviews

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Broadhurst Theatre, New York
Through June 15


Who knew that "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was such a laugh riot?

Certainly, Tennessee Williams' classic play contains its share of humor, as do many of his works. But the current revival directed by Debbie Allen resembles nothing so much as a raucous family sitcom. The results, while undeniably entertaining, cheapen the overall effect -- though apparently not for an audience that was laughing uproariously from start to finish.

An all-star black cast has been assembled for the production, including Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, making his stage debut as the alcoholic Brick; Anika Noni Rose ("Dreamgirls") as the sex-starved Maggie; and theater veterans James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad as Big Daddy and Big Mama.

The director's efforts to enliven the proceedings are apparent from the beginning, with a saxophone player wandering onstage to play some New Orleans-style jazz and a glimpse of a bare-chested Howard -- cue catcalls from the female audience members -- showering in the background. In the first scene, Rose, wearing Maggie's trademark slip, writhes and poses suggestively with all the subtlety of a porn star.

The play rises or falls based on the performances of its leads, and the two younger players are disappointing. The over-the-top Rose conveys Maggie's sexual and emotional hunger in more irritating than poignant fashion. The underplaying Howard retains his dignity, but he's so intent on portraying Brick's existential despair that he forgets to signal his underlying dark humor.

Although a bit too histrionic at first, Rashad soon settles down and delivers a finely wrought, moving performance. But not surprisingly, the real star of the evening is Jones, tearing into his role with all the gusto one would expect. This version features particularly salty language that Williams restored for a later production of the play, and hearing the booming-voiced actor delivering it with such relish is surely one of the highlights of the theater season. The second-act scene in which Big Daddy confronts his errant son is the most effective of the evening thanks to the canny parrying of the two actors.

Although much has been made of the all-black casting, it has little effect on the play, with the exception of a few lines that seem jarring in this context. The bigger problem is that the director and actors too often fail to trust the material, hammering its more outrageous elements home with a lack of subtlety that robs the play of its essential poeticism.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF
Presented by Front Row Prods. and Stephen C. Byrd with Alia M. Jones in association with Clarence J. Chandran, Norm Nixon, Michael Fuchs, Anthony Lacavera, Edward J. Jones, Sheanna Pang, Jovan Vitagliano and Al Wilson
Credits:
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Debbie Allen
Set designer: Ray Klausen
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: William H. Grant III
Sound designer: John H. Shivers
Cast:
Brick: Terrence Howard
Big Daddy: James Earl Jones
Big Mama
Phylicia Rashad
Maggie: Anika Noni Rose
Gooper: Giancarlo Esposito
Mae: Lisa Arrindell Anderson
Rev. Tooker: Lou Myers
Dr. Baugh: Count Stovall
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