Here is a startling fact: Tennessee Williams wrote six brilliant plays between 1944 and 1955. The first was “The Glass Menagerie.” The last in that ten year stretch was “Cat on Hot Tin Roof,” whichalong with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” won the Pulitzer Prize. Each work was written in a different style and all were almost three hours long. (In total, he wrote over 30 full length dramas, 10 screenplays, 2 novels, 25 one-act plays and many short stories!)
Frustrations of every sort hang over the latest production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre; while not perfect because of Rob Ashford's poor directorial choices, it still gives a passionate look into the wealthy Pollitt family in Mississippi. The centerpiece of the first act, there are three plus two intermissions, is Margaret, nicknamed Maggie. It is a coveted female role and Scarlett Johansson, an acknowledged sex symbol of screen, takes it on with gusto. She has already won a Tony award for Best Supporting actress for Arthur Miller's “A View from the Bridge.” Although her voice is a husky alto, I and others found difficulty in hearing her at times. But when we did, the results were dramatic. Williams has written some beautiful and funny lines. Her Maggie is a down and dirty street fighter, trying to shake her husband, Brick, out of his love for his dead friend and back into their bed. She understands all the other characters, and is desperate for Brick to see what is going on, but even in her cream-colored slip, she does not exude much sexiness. He limps around on a broken foot and uses his crutch as a weapon.
The only problem is that Benjamin Walker projects zero personality as Brick, her alcoholic husband, who is waiting for the liquor click that will give him peace. Walker is good-looking, built beautifully, but has no idea what to do. It is not easy. The first act is all Maggie's. Brick is there to sulk and brood, which Walker does not know how to project, while she rants and raves. In the second act, Brick fights with his mother and dad; he is loved by Big Mama, portrayed superbly by Debra Monk, and revered by Big Daddy, given an horrendous interpretation by Ciaran Hinds, an Irish actor who is so like a mobster, he seems to have mistakenly stumbled over from “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
Big Daddy is one of the great characters in American theatrical history. The rotund Burl Ives, a folk singer, made the part his own. He spoke the same words with a warm gravelly voice, not a loud shout. There has to be something lovable about this man, who by his own hand has developed a large estate, or the show does not make sense. Here he is, dying of cancer, a secret they are keeping from him and his wife, on his 80th birthday. There to celebrate are his oldest son, Gooper—those Southerners have the strangest names- an attorney played by Michael Park, and his wife Mae, the splendid Emily Bergl; this mother of their five “no-neck monsters” taunts Maggie with the fact that she has not had children. This couple pretends to care deeply for Big Daddy, but they are mendacious, haggling for his money.
Christopher Oram's beautiful ecru set lit by Neil Austin is far too big and the opening and closing of the doors just drove me crazy. Julie Weiss' costumes were too heavy and structured. Adam Cork's music and sound design –claps of fireworks and thunder and singing of spirituals, interfered with the language of the play, but that is not his fault-it was obviously dictated by the director.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”