Tennessee Williams’ 1955 bedroom drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of the sexist, most riveting American plays ever written, has received three starry but disappointing Broadway revivals over the course of 10 years.
First there was a turgid production in 2003 with Ashley Judd and Jason Patric, who were famously badmouthed by co-star Ned Beatty in a New York Times interview. Next was an all-black production in 2008 with Anika Noni Rose and Terrance Howard that fizzled under Debbie Allen’s uneven direction in spite of a powerhouse performance by James Earl Jones. Now comes a new staging by Rob Ashford, who is best known as a director-choreographer of musical comedy revivals (How to Succeed, Promises, Promises).
Scarlett Johansson, who earned a Tony for her quite excellent performance in the 2010 revival of A View from the Bridge, plays the notorious Maggie the Cat, who grew up in poverty, married into a wealthy plantation family and is now desperate to hold her marriage together.
Maggie’s husband Brick (Benjamin Walker) has turned into a depressed alcoholic following the suicide of his best pal Skipper, which he blames on Maggie, who accused Skipper of harboring homosexual feelings for Brick. With family patriarch Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds) on the verge of death, Maggie must pull Brick together in order to secure the bulk of Big Daddy’s estate.
This production generated bad word of mouth in previews for having an actor play the ghost of Skipper, who hovered silently around the stage. While that has thankfully been cut, what remains is an unconvincing, cheesy and cheap-looking production that lacks ensemble unity. Ashford, for instance, insists on constantly using distracting sound and wind effects to demonstrate a storm brewing outside. Frankly, the play itself has more than enough fireworks already.
At least Johansson is terrific, bringing a sultry, ferocious spirit to the famous role. Particularly fascinating is how she distinguishes Maggie’s rough and nasty behavior with Brick and her well-composed, dolled-up performance for the rest of the family. She also displayed a scratchy, low-pitched voice; but that might have been the product of a cold, seeing as she was repeatedly blowing her nose at my performance. Walker, sporting clean-cut looks and washboard abs, makes for a wimpy and pouting, rather uninteresting Brick.
While Hinds turns in a respectable performance, he comes off as too cool and genteel for an unashamed redneck like Big Daddy. He is joined by the characteristically dynamic Debra Monk, who brings a great deal of personality to Big Momma. Emily Bergl, best known as a cabaret artist, is unexpectedly assured as the wife of Brick’s older brother, who is often depicted as gaudy and annoying.
Here’s hoping the play’s next revival – which ought to happen in 2017 at this rate – is a winner.