Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 6, 2008
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Debbie Allen. Set design by Ray Klausen. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by William H. Grant III. Sound design by John H. Shivers. Hair design by Charles G. Lapointe. Cast: Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and James Earl Jones, with Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Lou Myers, Count Stovall, and Giancarlo Esposito, Bethany Butler, Marissa Chisolm, Marja Harmon, Heaven Howard, Clark Jackson, Skye Jasmine, Allen-McBean Robert, Christopher Riley.
We've long known about self-professed claw-bearer Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the absorbing family drama about life's mercurial mendacities. But who knew there was another feline lurking in the shadows? In the third act of the new revival at the Broadhurst, the prospect of losing her share of Big Daddy Pollitt's $80 million inheritance gives Maggie's scrappy sister-in-law and nemesis Mae reason enough to get her own fur in a twist. When the two turn on each other, all but arching their backs and hissing, you half expect the gloves - and perhaps more - to come off, and the blood to start spurting onto the audience.
This is Tennessee Williams?
Darned if I know. The likes of Maggie and Mae, their husbands Brick and Gooper, and parental overseers Big Daddy and Big Mama are familiar from other renderings of Williams's 1955 masterpiece of tangled lives and lies in the fading Deep South. But as interpreted by director Debbie Allen and a cast including such talents as James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard, and Anika Noni Rose, this Cat suggests less searing theatre than it does Good Times Goes Southern.
The reason for the change is not quite the one you might surmise. The semi-stunt, wholly African-American casting caused more stirs at its initial announcement months ago than it does onstage. You have no particular trouble understanding how Big Daddy (Jones) rose to his position of prominence as a plantation owner on "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile"; in fact, his skin color lends tantalizing new possibilities to the selection of positions he may have held on the grounds when he worked them.
It's not hard, then, to accept the other Pollitts. Big Mama (Rashad) is the bulldozer of a wife and mother, whose expectations of family and continuation are realized more in their greedy son Gooper (Giancarlo Esposito) and his wife Mae (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) than in the alcoholic Brick (Howard) and his wife Maggie (Rose), who can barely stand to share a bed anymore.
Maggie's complaints about escaping poverty for society take on a resonance when spoken by a young, beautiful black woman that they don't when uttered by a white bombshell - you can't help but assume the two have very different ideas of growing up poor. Likewise, you see more hurdles in the life of former football star Brick than just the ones he stumbled over to leg-breaking effect the previous night; his reluctance to disrupt his station and his family with his drinking and depression over the loss of his friend Skipper (who may have been more than just a friend) come from a more fraught place than they typically seem to with the brooding white actors so often cast in the role.
But if the concept is not an immediate bust, it's also not a sure sell. The last Broadway revival, in 2003, played it safe with a chilly but traditional take, starry actors (Ashley Judd, Jason Patric, and Ned Beatty led the company), and a deflating, defeated atmosphere. Allen avoids those pitfalls, but falls into another by not preventing truth from seeping away under the steady heat of her concept.
From the opening image, in which a blues saxophonist (Gerald Hayes) blows his way across Ray Klausen's bordello-boudoir set while a half-naked Howard mimes showering in half-light, it's obvious the evening's aims are not to shatter myths about Southern propriety. Soon after, when Maggie begins her prowling about Brick while primping for Big Daddy's impending birthday party, Allen gives more open, teasing, and deliberate focus to Rose's steamy sex appeal than has been the case with any other production I've seen. Worse, Rose's orange-steamroller delivery of her act-length declamation of discontent so overwhelms the serenely stolid Howard, his helpless disinterest becomes literally comic.
It's not an isolated incident. Allen has let comedy run rampant, allowing - if not outright encouraging - peals of laughter in unthinkable places, as if everything has been approached in the manner of a black sitcom. Which one? Take your pick. Maggie pouts, Brick grunts, and it's a rerun of Married... with Children. Esposito's sly play for Big Daddy's fortune has more than a few shades of a subdued Martin Lawrence. And I'm positive I saw Maggie and Mae's showdown played out on any number of episodes of Family Matters (though Steve Urkel has thankfully stayed away).
Too few of the other performances compare. Rose has never looked more gorgeous or more self-assured, but her one-note rendition of Maggie's layered concerns is not befitting this Tony Award-winning musical actress (for Caroline, or Change, in 2004). Rashad, who is Allen's sister, is lurching, broad, and unbearable; utterly absent is the icy temerity she's brought to recent stage roles in A Raisin in the Sun (for which she won a Tony Award) and Bernarda Alba, replaced by curious gropes toward the Aunt Jemima stereotype she's shunned her entire career. Esposito and Anderson convey industriousness but nothing else during their brief moments of prominence.
As for Jones, he's exactly the fulcrum this unsteady crew needs for balance. The libidinous glint in his eye when Big Daddy, believing he's dodged cancer's bullet, makes plans for conquering more territory (of the young, fresh, female variety) in his remaining 15 or 20 years, tells you all you need to know about what brought Big Daddy to the top - and what will keep him there until God strikes him down. (That Voice, and his mountain-like physical presence, convince you it can't really be any time soon. Doctors reports, alas, don't always agree.)
His Big Daddy tinged with not even a hint of self-pity, Jones is unforgiving, unforgettable, and irreplaceable as a man of means who's also uncomfortably mortal. But his outward bravado doesn't completely fool anyone - including himself. "The human animal is a beast that dies," he acknowledges to his son in a moment of self-realization and therapeutic necessity. Not so, at least for Jones: In this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the man that's dying is the only one who's ever recognizably alive.