The creative team behind the Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" has apparently concluded that Tennessee Williams' script needed more fireworks. So they went ahead and added them.
They also added cap guns, the sound of crickets, musical crescendos, ringing telephones, chiming clocks, thunder crashes and a mind-boggling nine songs, some sung while the action is happening. One more song and this show might be classified a musical.
Whether all the sound effects are meant to enhance the performances onstage or cover up the acting is unclear. What's not unclear is that an unnecessarily noisy production opened Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The ruckus distracts from some fine performances and a play that deserves - as most of the men in it also wish - silence sometimes.
Scarlett Johansson turns in a nifty turn as Maggie, finding humor and barely hidden desperation in her role as frustrated wife and mother-to-be. She's less overtly sexy than other actresses who have played the ironic role, making her Maggie more cerebral, angry and proud.
Benjamin Walker, as her husband Brick, is slow to boil but savage when he does, a former athlete turned into a languid hunk of beef who sits on the edges of the stage avoiding conversation and hiding in a bottle. They have little chemistry at first - but that's kind of the point.
The older couple in this three-act melodrama - Debra Monk as Big Mama and Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy - are excellent as a long-married pair whose love has turned poisonous. Emily Bergl as the scheming Mae is also first-rate. You won't believe Hinds is Irish, so wonderfully does he capture a Southerner whose genteel facade dissolves.
But who can hear any of the actors through this din? Fireworks meant to underscore lines in the text are not needed and come off sounding cheap. The 1958 film with Elizabeth Taylor had music, but did this revival have to as well? Isn't it a little overwrought to have servants singing during a storm? Rob Ashford is remarkably talented, with the latest "Evita" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" on his resume. But this is, to put it in appropriate terms, gilding the lily.
"Cat," first seen in New York in 1955, tells the tale of one family's machinations to control some prime Mississippi Delta farmland. They've gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of the patriarch, Big Daddy, who does not know he's dying of cancer.
Brick is mourning the death of good friend Skipper and the ambiguity of their relationship, which not only haunts him but Maggie as well. Brick retreats into booze, leaving Maggie alone to fend off her greedy in-laws and their "no-neck monster" children eager to take control of ailing Big Daddy's extensive land holdings.
To be fair to a show that tries to expose mendacity, Ashford does a great job ratcheting up the paranoia, as Christopher Oram's beautiful set featuring four huge French windows and billowing curtains seem always visited by figures listening in.
The director's handling of five dancing children is nicely done and Brick, suffering a broken ankle, trying to escape confrontation by hobbling across every corner of the set like a wounded animal is strongly choreographed.
But Ashford should just have let Tennessee Williams handle the fireworks.
Fireworks light up the night sky during Big Daddy’s birthday party in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
That’s it for the sparks, unfortunately.
Broadway’s starry but misguided new take on Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer winner about secrets, lies and love is a dim and soggy affair.
The reason for the revival is Scarlett Johansson. A compelling idea on paper, but it doesn’t deliver in reality.
Johansson, 28, has proven herself an engaging film actress for nearly two decades. She made a very good stage debut three years ago and won a Tony for “A View From the Bridge.” Part of her success was how well she blended into the cast while playing a small, pivotal part.
She is overwhelmed by Williams’ drama and the heavy lifting demanded of Maggie the Cat.
The first act is all Maggie. It’s crucial to set the tone for the play and to show how desperate and frustrated life with Brick, her impotent, alcoholic husband, has made her.
Johansson is alarmingly one-note while delivering lines that have been said by the likes of Barbara Bel Geddes (the original Maggie), Elizabeth Taylor (in the ’58 film) and most recently on Broadway by Anika Noni Rose (just five years ago). Her voice is raspy and lacks vitality; it has the musicality of a foghorn. The power of the words gets lost in translation.
Director Rob Ashford, known for staging and choreographing musicals, does her no favors with a preposterous set by Christopher Oram. Gauzy and gargantuan, Brick and Maggie’s bedroom (and adjoining bathroom with more steam than a rainforest) has an operatic scale that works against an intimate story and swallows everything whole, Johansson included.
Ashford also has Maggie constantly fuss and tug at her slip as though she’s trapped in a lingerie prison. She recalls a cat neurotically grooming itself. And in one odd moment, when Maggie can’t get a reaction from Brick about his late buddy Skipper, she talks to an empty chair. Clint Eastwood, anyone?
Her co-stars have their own issues. Benjamin Walker, so dynamic in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” underplays the sexually confused Brick as he drinks his way toward a mind-calming “click.” He’s so low-key that he makes almost no impression.
Irish actor Ciarán Hinds blasts the bluster as the dying Big Daddy, and is much more contemporary than anyone else. Debra Monk hollers her way through the role of Big Mama. Thanks to Ashford’s staging, both end up bouncing around on Brick and Maggie’s bed. Big Daddy, despite being gravely ill, half-cartwheels himself off.
Michael Park and Emily Bergl play Brick’s grasping brother and his wife. A crew of kids play their no-neck monsters.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” comes with inherent hurdles. At three acts and 2 and 3/4 hours, it is windy and repetitious, but it can be thrilling in the right hands. This production never really clicks.
Maggie is young and attractive, and she just wants to have sex with her hot husband — is that too much to ask? You can hardly blame her for being on edge: The man would rather spend his time in a boozy stupor than get cozy with his wife.
Frustrated and angry, Maggie (Scarlett Johansson) spends the entire first act of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” alternately taunting and pleading with hubby Brick (Benjamin Walker, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”). But he refuses to engage her, and wanders about their bedroom clutching a drink as he obsesses over his dead friend, Skipper.
Johansson didn’t pick the easiest vehicle for her second Broadway appearance — this is a big jump from the supporting role in “A View From the Bridge” that won her a Tony.
While her performance often lacks nuance and starts off too shouty, the star eventually gains in confidence. Spitting out Williams’ florid lines in a low-throated growl reminiscent of the young Kathleen Turner (herself a Broadway “Cat” in 1990), Johansson successfully brings to the fore Maggie’s rough edges.
She constantly reminds us that her character is no Southern belle, but a girl who grew up “poor as Job’s turkey” and married into a rich Mississippi family — or rather a nouveau riche one, whose luxurious home can’t hide a festering nest of greed and envy.
And now she’s stuck there, with a tortured husband, a bland brother-in-law married to a smug “monster of fertility” (Michael Park, Emily Bergl), and a domineering patriarch.
In contrast to Brick, his autocratic father, Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds), flaunts his virility. He boasts of always sleeping with his wife, Big Mama (Debra Monk, from “Curtains”), “and never even liked her, never did.”
But Big Daddy surprises us by being more accepting of Brick and Skipper’s intense relationship than the self-loathing Brick. Hinds and Walker dominate Act 2, beautifully bringing out the men’s fraught but strangely caring bond.
Then it’s Monk’s turn to surge, as Big Mama confronts her cancer-stricken husband’s mortality and the impending shift of power within the family.
“Cat” is like an opera in its overheated treatment of guilt, frustration and “mendacity,” and director Rob Ashford — better known for staging/choreographing musicals like “How To Succeed in Business” and “Promises, Promises” — treats it as such.
The actors constantly prowl Christopher Oram’s outsize set, so ginormous it might as well be at the Met Opera. The semicircular environment suggests a cage, with large windows but no walls: These people imprison themselves.
Despite occasional staging touches — the sounds of fireworks and playing children always seem to surge at momentous times — the show has a certain tragic inevitability. It’s a flawed but compelling picture of Southern discomfort.
A four-alarm urgency infuses every breath that Scarlett Johansson takes in the oxygen-starved revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that opened on Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
Ms. Johansson plays Maggie, the magnificent, ravenous title creature in this oft-revived Pulitzer Prize-winning 1955 play about truth and mendacity on a bourbon-soaked Southern plantation. And Maggie’s husband, the limp Brick (Benjamin Walker), gets it absolutely right when he tells her that her voice sounds “like you’d been running upstairs to warn somebody that the house was on fire!”
Well, why shouldn’t it sound that way? Maggie’s prospects of both a financially secure future and a satisfying sex life are in jeopardy, as her angry young husband drinks himself into a coma of indifference. It is also true that whoever plays this character needs the stamina and breath control of Wagner’s Brünnhilde to get through Maggie’s protracted opening aria of lust and lamentation without passing out.
Add to this list the anxiety that has to eat at a 28-year-old movie star required to hold a live audience’s attention pretty much by herself for the whole of a long first act. Ms. Johansson was terrific in her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s “View From the Bridge” three years ago, and she deserved the Tony she won for it.
But that was in a supporting, largely reactive role. Maggie is a front-and-center part, written in a poetic prose that approaches Shakespearean intricacy. And New York theatergoers are among the most unforgiving on the planet. If you were she, you’d be gasping too.
Fortunately, Ms. Johansson, like Maggie, seems to possess a confidence that can turn raw nerves into raw power. Her sophomore Broadway performance isn’t as fully integrated as the one she gave in “Bridge”; there are a few miscalculations in her take on Maggie. She is perhaps too forthright to be truly feline, and for a poor but well-brought-up debutante, her accent is strangely common. (At times she sounds like Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”)
But Ms. Johansson confirms her promise as a stage actress of imposing presence and adventurous intelligence. Quibble all you want about the particulars of her performance. She obviously has a strong sense of what she wants to do here and the convictions to follow it through. Her Maggie is, as she must be, an undeniable life force and — as far as this production, directed by Rob Ashford, is concerned — a lifeline.
If I seem to be devoting disproportionate space to Ms. Johansson, it’s not just because she’s the most famous person in the room, or that Maggie (thanks to a steamy incarnation by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film) is the play’s most famous character. Ms. Johansson is also the only major player in “Cat” who appears to have a fully thought-through idea of the character she’s portraying. With a palatial bedroom of a set by Christopher Oram and vivid period costumes by Julie Weiss, the show is as light on persuasive acting as it is saturated in Southern Gothic atmosphere.
That imbalance is perplexing, given the stature of the show’s other stars: Mr. Walker, the sexy, charisma-charged leading man of the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” and the estimable veterans Debra Monk (a Tony winner for “Redwood Curtain”), as Brick’s fond and foolish mother, and Ciaran Hinds (a devil to remember in “The Seafarer”) as the ultimate filthy rich Southern patriarch, Big Daddy, whose terminal illness has his kinfolk gathering like vultures.
All these fine performers bring a snarling aggression to their parts (even Mr. Walker, when Brick is finally startled out of his pickled lethargy) that I suppose befits a play in which people are frequently characterized as rutting, territorial animals. (Michael Park and Emily Bergl give conventional Southern snake performances as Brick’s conniving brother and sister-in-law.)
But even when they raise their voices and square their shoulders, they seem to be marking time, as if hoping inspiration would strike and tell them how to say the next line. Yes, we’re told that Brick is drinking himself into oblivion because of the death of his best friend, Skipper, to whom he was suspiciously close; that Big Mama exists to please Big Daddy and dotes on Brick; and that Big Daddy is as filled with the hunger for living (which includes good ole sex) as Maggie.
But aside from the startling flashes of vulnerability that tear the carapace of Ms. Johansson’s Maggie, there’s scant evidence of subtext, of the thoughts behind the blustery facades. I doubt this is quite what Williams had in mind when he wrote, in the stage directions for “Cat,” that “some mystery should be left in the revelation of a character in a play.”
The second act, in which Brick and Big Daddy have one of the great father-son confabs in American theater, gives off sparks only when Mr. Walker and Mr. Hinds physically hit at each other, then collapse in an Oedipal heap on that big, dominating bed that occupies center stage (a reproachful reminder of Brick’s neglect of his husbandly duties).
Otherwise, the scene has the singsong prosiness of a petulant teenager and his old man having an everyday argument about Junior’s raiding the liquor cabinet again, albeit with a father who may possibly have mob ties. (Mr. Hinds’s delivery sometimes evokes a Southern variation on “The Sopranos.”) As much fun as Maggie’s soliloquies are in the first act, the soul of the play is here, as Brick and Big Daddy force each other to confront the evasions that cripple their lives.
Mr. Ashford — who is best known here for musicals (“Promises, Promises”) but staged an acclaimed version of Williams’s “Streetcar Named Desire” in London several years ago — doesn’t seem to trust his actors to deliver Williams’s poetry. So instead he imports it. The sound of fireworks exploding (in honor of Big Daddy’s birthday) is embarrassingly used to underscore revelatory lines.
The interpolation of a character playing the ghost of Skipper, who appeared in previews, has been mercifully exorcised. But Adam Cork’s sound design remains unnecessarily intrusive. Crucial dialogue is sometimes lost as the sound of servants singing spirituals and work songs (“Oh, lordy, pick a bale of cotton”) drifts from the wings.
And when a summer storm arrives, it’s the scenery-rattling, curtain-whipping kind you associate with vintage dark-house suspense movies. There’s lots of thunder and lightning, of course. But Mother Nature shouldn’t have to do the work of actors. In this production only Ms. Johansson suggests the tempest in the human heart.
Broadway has embraced many - perhaps too many - breeds of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in recent years.
Tennessee Williams' hungry and restless Maggie has been reincarnated as a slinky sexpot (Elizabeth Ashley), a sexual bulldozer (Kathleen Turner), an ineffectual flower (Ashley Judd) and, barely five years ago, a smartly luscious kitten (Anika Noni Rose) in the all-black production best remembered for James Earl Jones as Big Daddy.
What we have not had, at least in my experience, is a sedate Maggie in a tasteful, even timid revival of Williams' 1955 Pulitzer winner about voracious Southern-gothic greed and a loveless, lying family.
But here is Scarlett Johansson, the intelligent heat-seeking missile whose 2010 Broadway debut in "A View From the Bridge" justly earned her a supporting actress Tony. In her much-anticipated star turn as one of the theater's juiciest women, she works so admirably to avoid Maggie-the-Cat cliches that the actress and the character almost disappear in sensitive, levelheaded, ladylike restraint.
Even the iconic silk slip -- the one which Maggie throughout history has worn like a second skin while trying to seduce her Brick, her damaged husband, back to their bed -- is bizarrely chaste and modest. For heat, we must look to the moody, alcoholic Brick (played with dashing, elegant disdain by Benjamin Walker), wrapped first in a towel and not too self-involved to flash us his butt.
Debra Monk is too smart for silly dim-bulb Big Mama, which means that the dying, disappointed Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds) seems too mean for our sympathy.
What a strangely unmoored production this is. According to reports from previews, director Rob Ashford had to scrap chunks of his original high-concept vision. This included appearances of the ghost of Skipper, Brick's athlete buddy, the tragic figure who loved him too much.
But the ghost of that possibly misguided idea haunts this production with tall hulking windows, golden lights and long gauzy curtains that beautifully match Johansson's amber hair. Without Ashford's original ideas -- including, we're told, songs -- what's left is faceless, respectable and dull. Who ever imagined we'd miss the vulgarity?
In returning to Broadway for the first time since her Tony Award-winning debut in A View From the Bridge, Scarlett Johansson was clearly keen not to repeat herself.
True, the actress chose another American classic that premiered on Broadway in 1955. But her role in the new revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (* * * out of four) could not be more different than that of the awkward ingenue she played so convincingly in View three years ago. Maggie, Cat's hot-blooded heroine, would seem a more natural fit for the star, whose voluptuous beauty evokes classic cinema sirens from Elizabeth Taylor to Kathleen Turner -- who played the part on screen and in a previous staging, respectively.
But Johansson's Maggie is no vamp. What makes her so distinct from View's Catherine -- aside from her accent (Southern, as opposed to Brooklyn) and hair color (strawberry blonde rather than brunette) -- is a certain premature hardness. Pacing the stage, her voice hoarse with frustration, the actress makes us keenly aware of how desperate this beautiful creature is as she appeals to the one man she needs, and possibly loves: her husband, Brick. Seduction is not the first thing on her mind; survival is.
The performance is, in other words, as insightful and as lacking in vanity in Johansson's last stage effort. If it's also less nuanced, that can be attributed at least in part to the material and to Rob Ashford, the director of this production, which opened Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Tennessee Williams' sumptuous, metaphor-laden text doesn't exactly invite subtlety, and Ashford and his creative team play up the Southern Gothic torrents. Christopher Oram's vast set features spinning overhead fans and sweeping curtains that map the literal and figurative storms brewing on Big Daddy's Mississippi estate, while Adam Cork's music and sound design introduce and embellish scenes with a creepy cacophony that wouldn't be out of place in a horror flick.
The pained humanity that is the real source of Cat's dark allure is not entirely lost in the noise, though. While the capable supporting players -- notably Michael Park and Emily Bergl, cast as Big Daddy and Big Mama's oafish elder son and his scheming wife -- don't always get to transcend the cartoonish aspects of their roles, the leads appear better nurtured. Benjamin Walker is especially affecting as Brick, the younger and favorite son, broken and embittered by the death of the friend who was his true soul mate.
As Brick tries to drink himself into a comfortably numb state, Walker makes him both a foil to Maggie's ferocious life force and, in his own repressed rage, a worthy sparring partner. He's just as potent in Brick's crucial scene with Big Daddy, Cat's alpha dog, played here by a duly commanding, savagely funny Ciaran Hinds.
The quest for "life everlasting" shared by Maggie and her seemingly indomitable but all-too-human father-in-law can take a heavy toll; and this sometimes overheated Cat gets its sharpest bite in reminding us of that.
The main question is: What kind of a "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is Scarlett Johansson? The short answer is: This Maggie the Cat is a tiger. But for all that hissing and scratching, not much blood is spilled in this meh revival of Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Although Rob Ashford's production is great to look at and, quite literally, bursting with fireworks, it's the kind of beauty that's mainly for show and incapable of breaking your heart.
The conflict fueling this family drama is a deep-fried Southern version of those ancient mythic battles over the kingdom of a fallen tribal chieftain.
The fatally wounded king is Big Daddy Pollitt (Ciaran Hinds), an immensely rich cotton planter who, along with his vulgar wife Big Mama (Debra Monk), doesn't know what everyone else does -- that he's dying of cancer. The disputed territory is 28,000 acres of the richest land in the Mississippi Delta. The warring princes are Big Daddy's two sons, goopy Gooper (Michael Park) and tragic Brick (Benjamin Walker), goaded by their respective spouses, Mae (Emily Bergl) and Maggie (Johansson).
The occasion is a lavish 65th birthday party for Big Daddy, and Christopher Oram has set the stage in a manner befitting nouveau riche royalty. We can only imagine what the rest of the big old plantation house looks like, but the huge, cream-colored bedroom shared by Brick and Maggie breathes luxurious languor: an ornate marriage bed, billowing draperies, a wall of French doors opening onto a colonnaded terrace.
Lovely as it is, the bedroom is more a marital battlefield for the couple, who haven't had sex in ages, to Maggie's despair. Brick is furious with Maggie for contributing to the death of Skipper, his boyhood friend and one true (if undeclared) love, and is drinking himself into an early grave -- but not before he kills Maggie with the sheer force of his contempt.
The first round goes to Maggie. Johansson makes the bold choice of playing her like the tormented cat she declares herself to be, prowling the room like a trapped animal and furiously spitting out her rage and frustration through the bars of her cage. Johansson is no slumming movie star (the raves for her Broadway debut in "A View From the Bridge" were well earned) and she's giving a hell of a tough performance here. But she never lets up on this full frontal attack, denying Maggie the wounded feelings that make her human.
Walker pretty much walks through Act One, passing up any opportunity to suggest that there might be a few chinks in the emotional brick wall that Brick presents to the world. But he recovers himself brilliantly in Act Two, turning in a riveting perf in the painfully moving father-son scene in which Brick and Big Daddy disastrously try to be honest with one another.
Although the miscast Hinds doesn't begin to get a handle on the magnetic vulgarity of Big Daddy, he's so fully engaged in that same father-son scene that the earth does seem to tremble when the old man is forced to face the truth about himself.
Monk tries her best to seize the scene in which Big Mama has her own shattering moment of revelation. But the timing is off, and for all her shouting, she doesn't stand a chance against the explosive fireworks and bolts of heat lightning that finally bring this show to its noisy climax.