“Cat On A Hat Tin Roof” with Scarlett Johansson and Benjamin Walker could not possibly be so dull, I said during the first intermission; I just must be tired. The couple next to us left during the second intermission, but they must have had a problem with their babysitter.
I had been looking forward to this, the sixth Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ scorching family drama set in the high-ceilinged home of the biggest plantation in the Mississippi Delta. It had seemed an inspired pairing – she, the talented movie star who had proven her stage chops with her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s “A View From The Bridge”; he the Southern-born son-in-law of Meryl Streep whose performance on stage in “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” was so sexy that it was the centerpiece of the show’s marketing campaign; the Bloody, Bloody logo was a close-up of Benjamin Walker’s butt. Johansson and Walker certainly look great together in the still photographs.
Yet something fails to connect from the very first scene – from Maggie’s very first line:
“One of those no-neck monsters hit me with a hot buttered biscuit, so I have to change.”
Maggie is the cat – catty towards her in-laws ; in heat; feral in her instinct for survival. She lobbies her sulking drunken hulk of a husband to have the sex he has sworn off, so that she can produce offspring and thus not be disinherited by Brick’s dying father, Big Daddy, in favor of Brick’s brother Gooper and his annoyingly fertile wife Mae. (The “no-neck monsters” are Mae’s five children.) But here Johansson plays Maggie not as a feral cat but a graceful feline. Her face is pretty, her outfit is pretty, her pearls are pretty, her Southern accent is pretty — and pretty unpersuasive. Her demeanor seems nearly serene and her delivery demure, almost child-like. She could be playing with dolls.
I have been a fan of Johansson’s for ten years, ever since I saw her when she was 18 and unknown (at least to me) in “The Girl With A Pearl Earring.” How she could get this latest role so wrong is just a bafflement to me.
And Brick, who is supposed to be trying unsuccessfully to ignore his wife’s pleas and needling and seductions by drinking himself into oblivion, doesn’t seem to need alcohol in this scene: Walker is barely present. (I suppose this is a pun, since he wears nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist and a cast on his leg.)
Both become more animated later on, or at least louder, but the damage has been done.
Now, Walker’s initial affect is realistic for the character, a former football star who has become a numbed-out drunk since the death of his best friend Skipper. It’s just not all that interesting when little seems going on beneath the surface. The production suffers from comparison to the Brick of the Cat on Broadway just five years ago. Terrence Howard took his cue from the script that Brick kept on drinking in hopes of reaching “the click” of total insensibility – but that during the course of the play, which unfolds in real time on Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, Brick hadn’t reached that state yet. In the meantime Howard theatrically expressed his inebriation, disgust and even amusement.
The current production suffers in comparison with more than just the 2008 Broadway revival. Those people who know “Cat” only from the 1958 movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are at something of a disadvantage. The performances are so indelible – and so easily available from Netflix or the local library or the occasional showing on TV – that it is difficult to tolerate a production where the actors offer a different interpretation… much less when they seem less alive.
On the other hand, the screenplay by Richard Brooks and James Poe scrubbed Williams’ play clean of all references to homosexuality, wiping out a context that gives the story more clarity and greater force. Though not explicit by today’s standards, there is more in the text than I had remembered: Big Daddy was originally the foreman on the plantation, which was owned at that time by two men who shared a big bed – the same bed that Brick now refuses to share with Maggie. Brick feels nothing but disgust for that long-gone male couple. Whether or not he doth protest too much, it is clear that everybody else viewed his great friendship with Skipper as suspect – including Skipper.
Perhaps this is the reason why director Rob Ashford initially created a character Ghost Skipper who haunted their bedroom – an invention that was roundly ridiculed and resisted, and had been eliminated by the time I saw the production.
You surely don’t need to hire an actor to play Ghost Skipper, but it is smart to understand that Skipper hangs over the characters, his invisible presence offering clues to their personalities. Indeed, Big Daddy’s attitude towards him is a revelation, and gives the blustery plantation owner more complexity than simply a human blunt-force instrument. The Irish actor Ciaran Hinds probably comes off best in the entire 17-member cast, thanks to his intensity and his relative engagement, as well as the least grating Southern accent. But I didn’t catch what should be a startling shift in our perception of his character. (Debra Monk, so wonderful in everything from Company to Curtains on Broadway, here gets to yell in a fake Southern accent like everybody else, but she hardly registers as Big Mama.)
If you need proof that Tennessee Williams’ discreet gay subtext helps keep this play from being dated, one need only consider the mixed reaction to the speech just last week at the Golden Globes by actress and director Jodie Foster, born in the decade after “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” who came out as a lesbian, clearly but obliquely, ambivalently.
Done right, “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” stays vibrant because it works theatrically, presenting what Williams explains in a stage direction as the “cloudy, flickering, evanescent — fiercely charged! — interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” In the current production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway, everybody just seems under the weather.
Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
Richard Rodgers Theater
Directed by Rob Ashford
Scenic design by Christopher Oram, costume design by Julie Weiss, lighting design by Neil Austin, composer and sound design by Adam Cork.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Ciarán Hinds, Benjamin Walker, Debra Monk, Emily Bergl, Michael Park, Vin Knight, Brian Reddy, Will Cobbs, Tanya Birl, Jordan Dean, Lance Roberts, Cherene Snow, Laurel Griggs, Victoria Leigh, Charlotte Rose, Masi George Porteous, Noah Unger
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with two ten-minute intermissions
Ticket prices: $75.75 – $152.25
“Tennessee Williams’ Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” is scheduled to run until March 30, 2013