Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Anthony Page. Set design by Maria Björnson. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Howard Harrison. Sound design by Christopher Cronin. Music composed by Neil McArthur. Cast: Ashley Judd, Jason Patric, Ned Beatty, with Margo Martindale, Michael Mastro, Amy Hohn, Edwin C. Owens, Patrick Collins, Alvin Keith, Starla Benford, Jo Twiss, Pamela Jane Henning, Isabella Mehiel, Muireann Phelan, Zachary Ross, Charles Saxton.
It's always a bit rare in November to find the air as cold inside a theater as outside. At the Music Box, where a revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof just opened, that seems to be exactly the case.
Well, much of the time anyway - the central heating does get turned on when Ned Beatty steps onstage. As Big Daddy, enterprising plantation owner and the patriarch of the Pollitt clan, Beatty's capable of melting the ice covering his fellow actors and much of the rest of Anthony Page's production when he makes an appearance.
While only somewhat imposing physically, Beatty's Big Daddy is emotionally towering, bearing the air of a man who truly has been through it all; he's earned his position in life with hard work, and he wants to hang onto it for as long as possible and leave it in good hands when he passes on. He's clearly the driving force, the generator from which the rest of the family's energy derives.
Or at least where it should derive. There's an alarming paucity of this feeling from every other actor on stage. Beatty's performance as the father of this unruly group is so clearly defined that it seems as if the other actors have forgotten their characters are supposed to be related to him.
In Williams's tense family drama, where every relationship and bond is suspect, the underlying recognition that these people are trapped by their blood is vital. It not only sustains the tension between the characters, but allows the story itself to make sense - this is a family where deception (or mendacity, to use a word often repeated during the play) is commonplace, so a successful production must articulate what has driven these people to this type of behavior.
Maggie is caught between her own uneven and unrewarding upbringing and the life of privilege that her marriage to Brick, Big Daddy's favored son, can afford her. But their union suffers in comparison, or so she thinks, to that of Brick's brother Gooper and his wife Mae, which puts her future in jeopardy. Brick has been driven to alcoholism by the untimely death of his best friend Skipper, in which he may have played a role, and is worried about how that death may reflect on him as a son and a man.
This is all exasperated by Big Daddy's medical condition - he believes (not without reason) that he's suffering only from a spastic colon, while the prognosis is indeed quite a bit worse. And, of course, everyone wants his or her fair share of Big Daddy's spoils: Maggie thinks everything will pass to her and Brick if they can conceive a child, while Gooper and Mae are determined to remind Big Daddy of all they have that Maggie and Brick do not.
The show's fragile plotting begins to disintegrate and disinterest when the ill-defined personalities of this production's characters become evident. Like the late Maria Björnson's scenic design, which finds every other board missing from every visible surface of Maggie and Brick's bedroom, many of the performers' portrayals seem little more than half there.
Jason Patric, for example, seems capable of delivering Brick's lines with only two different vocal inflections, and his emotional range seldom moves far beyond vague amusement on one end of the spectrum and mild annoyance on the other. The show's centerpiece scene, in which Big Daddy confronts Brick with his alcoholism and forces him to examine his relationship with Skipper (the homosexual underpinnings of which are left intentionally ambiguous), is stultifying and one-sided; Beatty invests his work with great need and love, while Patric reacts blankly.
This vital scene is completely ineffectual and its failure renders much of the rest of the production futile. Without concrete definition for Brick, Maggie cannot be fleshed out properly, and indeed she's not - Ashley Judd's Maggie never seems to be suffocating under the threat of mediocrity. Her watery nature reflects on the Gooper and Mae of Michael Mastro and Amy Hohn, who provide no real threat and look like buffoons played for comic relief rather than a frightening vision of Maggie's future.
Margo Martindale, as Big Mama, then looks even more ineffectual, and her performance, while decently emotional, reads as emotionally stilted and in no way commanding. The rest of the actors, in small roles, seem to recognize they are in bit parts and generally act accordingly - even the children don't suggest the "no-neck monsters" of which Maggie is so terrified. Only Beatty defines his character well, but as he's present mostly in the second act and for only a few brief moments in the third, there may as well be a blinking "vacancy" sign atop the proscenium arch most of the rest of the time.
Jane Greenwood's costumes are nice enough, and Howard Harrison's lighting (when not trying to depict fireworks) well captures a southern summer, but the south's oppressive heat and the dynamics of these complicated relationships must come out in the performances and the direction, and they simply don't. The work of Page and most of his actors suggests that the cat of the title would more likely freeze to the roof, at least when Beatty's not around to heat things up.