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Theater Review: ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

By Judd Hollander Created: January 31, 2013 Last Updated: March 29, 2013
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Big Daddy Pollitt (Ciarán Hinds) and son Brick (Benjamin Walker) have some of the best scenes in this production of Williams’s famous “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” (Joan Marcus)

Big Daddy Pollitt (Ciarán Hinds) and son Brick (Benjamin Walker) have some of the best scenes in this production of Williams’s famous “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” (Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK—There are some wonderful moments to be experienced in the current but often flawed Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about family decay Southern style.

As cotton magnate Big Daddy Pollitt (Ciarán Hinds), owner of 28,000 acres of the richest land in the Mississippi Delta, prepares to celebrate his 65th birthday, all is not right in the family. Second son Brick (Benjamin Walker), a former football hero turned alcoholic, lives on the family plantation in a childless marriage with his feisty and unfulfilled wife, Maggie (Scarlett Johansson).

Brick’s elder brother Gooper (Michael Park), his wife Mae (Emily Bergl), and their brood of five have arrived for the birthday festivities. However, there’s a deeper purpose to their visit. Big Daddy is dying of cancer, a fact that’s been kept from him and his wife Big Momma (Debra Monk), but which is to be revealed after the celebration.

While Gooper and Mae plan to stake their claim to Big Daddy’s inheritance, Brick couldn’t care less, drowning himself in drink while filled with despair and anger over his and Maggie’s roles in the death of his best friend.

A powerful tale with brilliant dialogue, much of the problems of the production can be placed squarely on the shoulders of director Rob Ashford. Ashford, a man who made his mark in musical theater, shows a severe lack of trust in the material of his first Broadway directorial venture into drama. He tries too hard to present the story like a tableau, rather than letting the specific words and situations take center stage.

This is especially true with Maggie, the “cat” of the title, whose performance in Act 1 not only introduces the character, but also sets the tone for what is to follow.

Supposedly a combination of sultriness, bitterness, and desperation, Johansson comes on too strong, spitting the dialogue out like bullets, with very little variation in tone or emphasis. This results in her speeches feeling like an endless monologue by a spoiled child rather than something more pointed and telling. Her performance also comes back to haunt the character in Act 3 where her final speech elicits laughter from the audience rather than sympathy or understanding.

Another problem is Christopher Oram’s scenic design of Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, where the entire story takes place. Magnificent to behold, the set is much too overbearing: The gigantic bed is integrated continually into the story with the actors falling on top of it, leaping over it, and taking quite a long time to walk around it, making it more of a distraction than anything else.

Also taking away from the dramatic moments is the singing from the offstage birthday party, as well as several sequences where fireworks drown out the dialogue of the characters.

Benjamin Walker as Brick and Scarlett Johansson as Maggie as they appear at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (Joan Marcus)

Benjamin Walker as Brick and Scarlett Johansson as Maggie as they appear at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (Joan Marcus)

On the bright side, Walker is wonderful as Brick. A character that is all too often played as wooden and disinterested, this Brick is brimming with passion, showing the character’s smoldering anger as well as his disgust for what he has become.

Walker’s scenes with Hinds are especially well-delivered, and his final line before the curtain is one of the most heart-rending—in light of what has just occurred—in the Williams canon.

Hinds makes an interesting Big Daddy, playing him as a sort of hardscrabble character, rather than a bombastic one. A man who came from nothing, he has his own plans for the future, plans that do not include Big Momma.

Hinds’s devil-may-care attitude adds an interesting poignancy to the role, coupled with the character’s innate no-nonsense and realistic point of view when it comes to Brick. Indeed, the scenes between Walker and Hinds prove to be the highlight of the play and offer a glimmer of just how strong this story can be.

Sadly the play’s third act, which is supposed to bring the entire story together, comes off as disjointed and haphazard. The characters are moved about like pieces on a chessboard. This is especially true with Gooper and Mae—minor players in the tale, but both with important contributions to make, which get lost here.

At the same time, Big Daddy’s final moments, which should end with a powerful statement, don’t even come up to a strong whimper. Debra Monk, however, does very well as Big Momma, showing both the loyalty and pathos of the character in her few brief scenes.

Also in the cast are Tanya Birl, Cherene Snow, Victoria Leigh, Lance Roberts, Will Cobbs, Vin Knight, Brian Reddy, Noah Unger, Charlotte Rose Masi, Laurel Griggs, and George Porteous.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 West 46th Street
Tickets: 877-250-2929 or visit www.ticketmaster.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Closes: March 30

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.

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