Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Theater Review

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Johannson Walker - P 2013
Joan Marcus

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Johannson Walker - P 2013

Smart casting fights a losing battle against unsubtle direction in this ineffectual revival.

Scarlett Johansson, Ciaran Hinds, Benjamin Walker and Debra Monk star in Broadway's third revival in a decade of Tennessee Williams' 1955 drama of greed, mendacity and death.

NEW YORK – Somebody spayed the cat. And it wasn’t the hardworking main attraction Scarlett Johansson, who plays Tennessee Williams’ tenacious feline title character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The star and her similarly marooned fellow castmembers are all at the mercy of Rob Ashford, a director out of his depth and reaching for any floatation device he can grab in this sinking Broadway revival, which manages to be both thunderously emphatic and curiously flat.

Choreographer-turned-director Ashford has staged Broadway revivals of the musicals Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His forays into directing drama have been in acclaimed London productions of Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (with Rachel Weisz) and Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (with Jude Law). But, the reception for those outings notwithstanding, there’s little evidence here that he knows what he’s doing.

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Paradoxically, for someone whose theater experience is rooted in dance, Ashford displays a tin ear for the vigorous musicality of Williams’ flavorful dialogue. The actors are directed to shout or mumble, with the production’s cluttered audio wallpaper forcing them to compete against busy sound and music cues. As a result, the humor often doesn’t land and the dramatic peaks tend to fly by unnoticed.

Lest the subtext should breeze over someone’s head, every bit of key dialogue is underlined with a sonic mallet. A mention of glory days on the football field prompts the eerie echo of a cheering crowd. Recollections of more carefree times are underscored with a tinkling "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." Talk of a fateful phone call triggers a ghostly ringing. And when death comes a calling, the field hands are at the ready offstage to spark up a mournful spiritual. The play’s birthday fireworks are used with the bluntness of punctuation, and as for the Act III storm … whoa there! Usually when the heavens rumble and the gauze curtains billow like this, some undead cad is chomping on the neck of a virgin.

According to reports out of previews, Ashford experimented with having a spectral version of Skipper prowl the stage. That device imposed a vivid embodiment of the football buddy whose death haunts former golden boy Brick Pollitt (Benjamin Walker), forcing him to seek refuge in vast quantities of bourbon. Thankfully, the idea was abandoned, though there are few other signs of restraint. It’s clear that Ashford doesn’t trust the play to work without a lot of intrusive directorial flourishes.

Even the set by gifted designer Christopher Oram is heavy-handed, if quite strikingly so in its washed-out Southern decadence. With a tonal palette ranging from beige to gray, this is a cavernous mausoleum, drenched in Neil Austin’s sepulchral lighting and ominous shadows, which pour in through those aforementioned drapes. Got it. We’re in a place of death. And in case the sexual wasteland that defines the union of Maggie (Johansson) and Brick is unclear, their loveless marital bed stands like a monolith, smack in the middle of the stage. Poor Walker is forced to hobble around it on Brick’s broken ankle like a lame greyhound looping the track

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For an actor whose experience is primarily in film, Johansson has innate stage presence, as she showed in her Tony-winning turn opposite Liev Schreiber in A View From the Bridge in 2010. She has no trouble playing sultry and looks alluring in Maggie’s iconic slip. Johansson has made some bold choices in the demanding role, aging herself with a coarsened, growling voice, knowing humor and a refusal to soften the character’s abrasive edge. There’s no kitten in her cat. But keeping Maggie’s vulnerability hidden until the final act seems a mistake. Without the underlying wounds she’s just a shrew.

Many actresses in the part use defiant pride as a means of backing up the massive lie that Maggie tells to secure Brick’s claim on his dying father’s estate. Instead Johansson trembles with the terror of exposure. But there’s otherwise insufficient delicacy in her characterization, which overall is the problem with Ashford’s production.

The first act in particular lumbers along, with Walker mostly seeming as uninterested as Brick is in the prolonged assault of seduction and supplication launched by Maggie, the wife he can no longer stand to see or hear. He fires up only momentarily, and then more consistently in Act II. That’s when Brick is forced into a confrontation with his father Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds), the blowhard Mississippi Delta plantation owner, kept in the dark about his cancer diagnosis. Walker is at his best showing Brick’s furious defensiveness whenever his wife or father picks at the open wound of Skipper’s death and the ambiguities of their relationship.

There are real sparks in the father-son faceoff because Hinds gets the determination and frustration of Big Daddy, a crude man accustomed to buying or bullying his way out of any situation. It’s a cruel irony that the exception is self-destructive Brick, the only member of the family he truly loves. Ashford and his actors do right by this sometimes-neglected aspect of the play, forging a kinship that exists between the two characters contrary to all logic.

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Hinds conveys the hardness of Big Daddy, especially in his cold dismissal of his devoted wife Big Mama (Debra Monk). But in a role that can be shattering, Monk’s performance gets lost. Her moments of hurt, bewilderment and anger mostly dissolve in the stormy air or are steamrolled by Ashford’s bag of tricks. As Brick’s vulture-like brother and sister-in-law, Gooper and Mae, Michael Park and Emily Bergl hit the required notes of unctuousness and avarice. But here, too, some of the caustic wit that runs through this play about greed, lies and death is missing, along with the pathos.

Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer winner has not exactly been neglected on Broadway, this being its third revival in a decade. It’s arguable whether this staging hits fewer or more of the right notes than the handsome but unbalanced 2003 production, in which Ashley Judd and Jason Patric were seriously outclassed by Ned Beatty and Margo Martindale in the senior roles. Or the 2008 all-black staging, where Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad crackled with life despite the inconsistencies of Debbie Allen’s direction. For an American classic, this is a surprisingly tough work to conquer.

Either way, it’s sad to think that audiences experiencing the play for the first time in this laborious version might be inclined to question its stature.

Venue: Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York (runs through March 30)
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Ciaran Hinds, Benjamin Walker, Debra Monk, Emily Bergl, Michael Parks, Vin Knight, Brian Reddy, Jordan Dean, Tanya Birl, Will Cobbs, Lance Roberts, Cherene Snow, Laurel Griggs, Victoria Leigh, Charlotte Rose Masi, George Porteous, Noah Unger
Director: Rob Ashford
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Set designer: Christopher Oram
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music & sound designer: Adam Cork
Presented by Stuart Thompson, Jon B. Platt, The Araca Group, Roger Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, Ruth Hendel, Carl Moellenberg, Scott & Brian Zeilinger, Nederlander Presentations, Tulchin/Bartner Productions, Scott Rudin