Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 17, 2013
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Rob Ashford. Scenic design by Christopher Oram. Costume design by Julie Weiss. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Composer & sound design by Adam Cork. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Ciarán Hinds, Benjamin Walker, with Debra Monk, Emily Bergl, Michael Park, Vin Knight, Brian Reddy, Tanya Birl, Will Cobbs, Lance Roberts, Cherene Snow, Laurel Griggs, Victoria Leigh, Charlotte Rose Masi, George Porteous, Noah Unger.
Most of the production is beset by questions that typically don't apply to Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1955 study of the corrosiveness of mendacity in the fading Deep South. Instead of wondering about the precise nature of the uneasy marriage between alcoholic former college football star Brick and his luscious but unsatisfied wife Maggie, or how they and the rest of the Pollitt family that occupy a spacious manor on "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile" have survived so long without being able to admit basic truths to each other or themselves, you're left wondering things more along the lines of "When was the nuclear apocalypse?" or "Why has Ashford set this in a Scooby-Doo–style haunted house?"
Such concerns are only addressed in Act III, when the various characters finally realize they must either face up to the hard facts of their existences or be eaten alive by them. Matriarch Big Mama sums it up nicely, delivering something that — appropriately or not — passes for a moral: "Oh, you know we just got to love each other, an' stay together all of us just as close as we can, specially now that such a black thing has come and moved into this place without invitation." More succinct still is Maggie, who, in the evening's waning seconds, refers to the mansion house as "this place that death has come into."
Then, and only then, do you fully understand that Ashford has conceived this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a moldering ghost story, making painfully literal Williams's implicit notion that every Pollitt is in some way courting mortality of either the body, the soul, or both. Whether Ashford's notion is a constructive one is another matter altogether.
Though reportedly Williams's favorite of his plays, this one lacks much of the depth, color, and relatability of his other big-name masterpieces, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, and is thus especially dependent on the passions simmering beneath the words. By shoving the subtext so far into the spotlight, Ashford doesn't just brutalize the core issues — what was Brick's relationship with his friend Skipper, who recently drank himself to death? Is telling Big Daddy about the cancer eating away his body a good thing or a bad thing? — he robs the play of the primary thing that makes it worth doing.
Ashford has never demonstrated a gift for subtlety; his entire Broadway career has consisted of choreographing and, in recent years, also directing musicals that are more interested in kicking you in the head than wringing your heart. Three of his four most recent, Cry-Baby (2008), Promises, Promises (2010), and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (2011) were studies of theatrical and terpsichorean excess that are antithetical to the delicacy Williams's better efforts require.
This throws an added burden on the actors who are simply not up to carrying it. No one suffers more than Scarlett Johansson. The film actress, who won a Tony for her role in the 2010 revival of A View from the Bridge, would seem ideal casting, her natural internal sensitivity and her steely external strength being a close fit for the sultry, suffocating Maggie. But here she's all affected façade, her beauty smothered by Julie Weiss's unflattering costumes and Paul Huntley's football-helmet wig, and speaking in an overstarched Southern accent and with immobile facial muscles that suggest she's impersonating Faye Dunaway impersonating Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
Spending most of the first act, over which Maggie traditionally rules, barking lines upstage, adjusting various parts of her outfit behind the bed or perched on a partially obscured chair, and basically doing everything except revel in the critical sexuality with which Maggie can no longer arouse Brick, Johansson captures none of the character's essential spirit and fails to set her up for the crucial role she'll play in defusing the powder keg of lies later on.
Her robotic performance is not matched elsewhere, but the other actors have problems of their own. Debra Monk should be a terrific Big Mama, as embracing as she is off-putting, but her cartoonish hand gestures and disconnected, bellowing line readings isolate her from identifiable feelings. Michael Park and Emily Bergl, as Brick's scheming brother Gooper and his oily wife Mae, are bland and centerless — the actors don't even go as far as making them obvious villains, settling instead for being mildly anxious scene-fillers.
Benjamin Walker, however, makes an unusually dynamic Brick, a notable change from the thoroughly anesthetized lumps that so often appear in the play. If Walker doesn't project the dying glow of heat for Maggie that should give his early scenes some tension, his refusal to let Brick descend into complete self-pity believably animates a young man who's struggling to discover where (or whether) he belongs in an unfamiliar world. And Ciarán Hinds is a boomingly threatening Big Daddy, utterly convincing as an uneducated farm hand elevated to royalty beyond his ken and beyond his reason.
When this pair faces off in Act II, first about Brick and Maggie, then Brick and Skipper, and then Big Daddy's own disintegration, the collision of opposing forces gives this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof something it never has at any other point: life. That's not necessarily a more interesting quality for every actor, playwright, or director. But it's what concerned Williams, and when Ashford must confront him head on, magic does occur. Alas, in this otherwise gangrenous mounting, that sorcery does not occur as often as you need it to.