There’s a new production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway with an appropriately “big name” actress, Scarlett Johansson, cast as Tennessee William’s iconic Maggie. The rest of the cast brings equally strong credentials to the challenges of one of Williams’ most acclaimed plays. Unfortunately, I thought the only thing about the production that actually worked was the set, which is beautiful and quite evocative of Williams’ style and atmosphere — a large circular mansion bedroom dominated by off-white silk-like curtains on oversized doors leading to a balcony that overlooks Big Daddy’s 28,000 acres. There are minimal furnishings, but a massive bed is at center-stage. All of the action encircles the bed or the bed creates an obstacle to the action – an inescapable metaphor that animates virtually every character in the play. Maggie and Brick, the occupants of the bedroom, have a sexless marriage; Mae and Gooper would appear to do nothing but produce children from their bed; Big Daddy and Big Mama continued to “do it” long after their marriage ceased to be anything more than a caricature of an aristocratic southern life-style.
But a set does not carry a play. It’s hard to tell whether Johansson is miscast or just misdirected. But her problems are shared by most of the rest of cast to one degree or another (suggesting directing issues). While they all speak with appropriate southern drawls, rarely do they use the features of those accents to exploit Williams’ masterful combination of language and accent to create depth. Everybody is angry and their anger is imposed on top of the language rather than growing out the language and the way it is expressed. Since Johansson essentially carries the first act, her overt anger and heavy-handed scowling gets tiresome and while we certainly see in Maggie one of the reasons Brick has turned to drink, we don’t really get any understanding of Maggie. At times, she is less concerned with the meaning of a line than the emotion she layers on top of it, frequently breaking up lines in ways that make no sense (evidently to maintain her level of vitriol, she needs to take breath in odd places). Benjamin Walker isn’t bad as Brick, but with everyone else in such an overwrought state, it’s difficult for him to play a character tortured from the inside. Even though he spends the first act wearing only a towel, he does not project the sort of wounded animal quality that I think Williams intended. Ciarin Hinds is an odd choice for Big Daddy — an Irish/British actor for a quintessential American role. He brings the usual technical accuracy that RADA trained actors bring to playing “types,” but he too suffers from anger overload and really fails to exploit Williams’ language, not typical of RADA grads. Debra Monk comes closest to fully realizing her character as Big Mama, although she never really seems to be comfortable with the character (she has a rather odd costume for an aging southern belle, although that also seems to reflect directorial intention).
Whenever I see a whole cast so misguided, I have to assume these are directorial choices. Frankly, I think Rob Ashford is out of his element here. Most of his major successes have been in musicals. It’s a bit surprising how insensitive he seems to be to Williams’ language that has such obviously lyrical qualities (he did direct a successful British production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”). Williams, and southern convention, use sweet language and musical delivery to accomplish lethal goals. And because Ashford allows so much outward bare emotion from the first line in the play, there is no place for the production to take us emotionally. Mr. Ashford seems to be interested in overt signs – the bed at the center of the room, screaming kids, the mansion staff singing in the background. While Williams’ certainly paints his characters and his plots with a broad brush, his plays are really collections of individual moments that reveal depth and meaning. What his characters say, and equally important, how they say it, is at the core of Williams’ brilliance. And most of that is lost in this production.
Unlike most Tennessee Williams devotees, I am not as big a fan of this play as several of his’ other major successes (e.g., “Streetcar,” Glass Menagerie,” “Summer and Smoke”). There are so many themes and issues floating around in this play without (for me) a clear sense of what they have to do with each other. I think a truly powerful production (which I have never seen on stage) needs to be as much about the atmosphere and way people do things as the actual content. Brick is unable to get over the loss of his would be/could be paramour, Skipper, and refuses to accept his rightful place as the successor to his father. He is a victim of his culture as are all of the characters. Maggie is just as lost a Brick, she just does not know it. They are all products of their surroundings. The environment is the context and the obstacle. The set uses very thin off-white “see through” drapes hung to flow freely at the slightest breeze and the act curtain is made of a similar material, lowering a transparent cover over the red hot emotions that are made far too apparent once the curtain rises. If only the production reflected some of that delicacy made noxious.