De-Clawed: Rob Ashford’s Starry ‘Cat’ Ain’t So Hot

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Arts & Film, Theater.


The star-studded revival of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ can’t hold the heat

Photo by Joan Marcus

Fans of women-in-prison flicks should take note: Rob Ashford’s latest Broadway revival of the seminal Tennessee Williams work Cat on a Hot Tin Roof conjures up a woman who’s all boxed in.

The inmate in question is the inimitable Maggie Pollitt, better known as Maggie the Cat, the wantonly desperate woman conniving to reclaim the sexual spark and family fortune which first drew her to the tormented Brick, a fallen football star besotted by booze and ghosts from the past, as well as a few spirits who can only be found in bottle form. But beyond designer Christopher Oram’s cavernously cage-like bedroom set, there are other forces limiting the rich storytelling potential of these two long-suffering Southerners. Those would be their portrayers, Scarlett Johansson and Benjamin Walker, who, despite earnest intentions, wobble through their portrayals as would a drunk driver who’s just been pulled over and forced to do a sobriety test.

Unfortunately, Ashford makes for a lesser policeman when it comes to this Williams show, admittedly a protracted work but one that revels in its depiction of loneliness and liars. Williams’ entire first act is devoted to Maggie’s machinations to get a rise out of her husband – interpret that every which way you will – who seems more than a little attached to his late friend, Skipper. His language is rich and poetic, and requires a performer who can imbue his cadences with melodic cunning. Johansson, struggling with both her voice and her inconsistently calibrated Southern accent, cannot fit that bill. The actress, long a Maxim magazine favorite, has always been a Hollywood sex object, which makes her an understandable casting choice for a commercial run. But her sultriness has largely been a calculated marketing move rather than the organic result of on-screen sensuality, and in a role like Maggie, where she needs it the most, she falls flat. Cats, as the play declares, may land uninjured, but this one certainly does damage to her point of impact. Her scenes, saddled with a breathy and forced delivery, feel redundant and circular when they should begin to allow her claws to emerge. From the outset, her Maggie is so strong one wonders if she even needs a husband. There is no desperation to her – lines that should be beseeching become a mere lecture. And later scenes, as she plays a subtle bargaining game for dying Big Daddy’s money against her in-laws Gooper and Mae (a quite convincing Emily Bergl and Michael Park), lack the needed emotional leverage.

And what about those scenes with Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds)? Ashford brings an inappropriate amount of tragedy at the notion of a family who will lie to the terminally ill paterfamilias to spare his feelings. This Cat fails to make the point of how lies can destroy more than they protect. While Debra Monk’s Big Mama is a proper blend of comic relief and period window dressing, Hinds is over-the-top, out of period, and oddly stylized in a goatee and with slicked-back hair. He’s so full of bombast that he never opens a window into Big Daddy’s hidden vulnerability.

And yet any production of Cat can be saved with a strong enough Brick – and yet Walker struggles to wrestle all of Brick’s conflicting emotions to the ground. Though the character must repress a litany of emotions – he’s a suicidal closet case – he still must telegraph his character’s yearning and frustrations. This Brick is oddly cold, lacking chemistry with both Hinds and Johansson. As with the character of Hal in the also recently-revived ‘50s relic Picnic, Ashford fetishizes Walker’s chiseled body. Before the actor even emerges from the Pollitt bathroom, steam pours in from offstage. That’s a cheap trick and a telltale sign of weakness in Cat. Its leading man and woman must first be capable of generating their own heat.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th Street. http://www.catonahottinroofbroadway.com/.  Through March 30.

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