Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Steamy Southern Night, Minus the Heat

Review:  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
This latest Cat answers the age-old question, "What kind of man wouldn't want to sleep with Scarlett Johansson?"
As the curtain rises on the latest Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, you are immediately struck by two things:  the gorgeousness of Christopher Oram’s sprawling set, and the insignificance of star Scarlett Johansson in comparison to it.  Despite a valiant attempt to fill the cavernous Richard Rodgers Theatre, Johansson and her fellow actors never succeed in making their presence truly felt, resulting in an occasionally engaging but ultimately unsatisfactory production of this great American drama.

Set on the Pollitt family plantation in mid-century Mississippi, the drama’s primary conflict arises from the question of who will inherit the estate should family patriarch Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds) lose his fight with cancer.  Big Daddy’s favorite son, Brick (Benjamin Walker), has developed quite the drinking problem since the death of his best friend Skipper, leading everyone to question his ability to run the massive estate.  Brick is also childless, a major sticking point between him and his dissatisfied beauty of a wife, Maggie (Johansson), who has her own opinions about what has prompted her husband’s sudden dependence on alcohol.

Williams’ script is a multilayered marvel of subtext and shades of gray, but the play’s delicate mood wasn’t designed to fill a theatre as large as the Richard Rodgers.  The producers really should have tried harder to secure a more suitable venue for this oft-performed classic (this production is the third time Cat has played Broadway in the past decade), and their choice of director seems equally misinformed.  A background in musical theatre has left Rob Ashford ill-equipped to guide his actors towards the sort of nuanced performances necessary to make such a familiar work feel fresh, and everything in this production seems oversimplified.  Ashford’s direction leaves no room for interpretation or debate, with even the big revelations being so blatantly obvious from the get-go that the characters seem inexcusably stupid for not recognizing them sooner.  There aren’t even any pretty stage pictures to look at, as Ashford’s collection of unmotivated crosses and forced stage business fails to result in even halfway innovative visuals.

The director’s shortcomings are particularly disappointing given that most of his cast is both talented and well-suited to their roles.  Johansson, whose Tony-winning work in A View from the Bridge remains one of the strongest Broadway debuts of the new millennium, possesses both the inner strength and effortless sexuality to make for a captivating Maggie.  But her normally luminous presence is curiously dialed back here, and her performance isn’t as fleshed-out and varied as it should be.  Johansson is by no means bad, but she also isn’t the triumph one would hope for, and you cannot help but think that a better director could have guided her towards a more effective performance.

As Brick, Tony-nominee Walker fares better, although his performance suffers from Ashford’s bluntness.  Brick’s possible repressed homosexual feelings towards Skipper, one of the key sources of conflict in the narrative, are now blindingly apparent to everyone.  Rather than slowly realizing the extent of his feelings over the course of the evening, this Brick seems fully aware of what’s going on from the outset, robbing one of the play’s main characters of his emotional journey. 

Among the rest of the cast, Hinds has an appropriate amount of Southern bluster as Big Daddy, and his extended scene with Walker in the second act is the closest this Cat gets to realizing the potential of Williams’ writing.  Debra Monk’s Big Mama is more overtly comedic than necessary, and the veteran actress’ performance has a tendency to drift towards shrillness.  Michael Park and Emily Bergl do serviceable work in the thankless roles of Brick’s brother Gooper and his sister-in-law Mae, although the pair is never quite as funny or loathsome as the characters really should be.

It is somewhat ironic that the show’s physical production displays a subtlety and attention to detail conspicuously absent from the acting.  Oram’s lovingly crafted bedroom set gives a full indication of the opulence of the rest of the plantation, and the costumes by Julie Weiss are suitably refined.  Neil Austin’s lighting quite handsomely highlights both the actors and the set, and his slight shifts in color and intensity provide more nuance to the action than many of the performances.  Sound designer Adam Cork has put a stunning amount of effort into creating realistic ambient noise, with the volume level rising and falling appropriately whenever a door is opened or closed (which is quite often).

There is enough that works about this Cat that it cannot be written off as a complete disaster, and any production that gives deserving thespians like Johansson and Walker the chance to display their craft is certainly welcome.  But thanks to a misguided venue choice and uninspired direction by Ashford, this revival never takes flight the way it could, making its existence difficult to justify.  The controversial all-black staging from a few years back ultimately did a better job of servicing the play than this misfire, which may be the most damning critique possible of a work so strongly tied to its pre-Civil Rights Southern milieu.

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