Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
It may have been the bone-chilling cold, but the scrum of theatergoers trying to cram into the Richard Rodgers Theater for a recent performance of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was nearly as daunting as the play's two-hour, 45-minute run time (with two intermissions). Thankfully, ushers got everyone to his seat in time to see Scarlett Johansson hold down Act One by herself.
Long dismissed as a movie star who manages to get by on her extraordinary looks, Johansson channels Elizabeth Taylor's classic portrayal of Maggie the Cat, the frustrated but determined wife of Brick Pollitt. Ignore the critical pans: Johansson did a fine job of negotiating a Southern accent and of presenting a credible portrait of a wife clinging to the hope that her husband will give her a child and secure their claim to the Southern dynasty's family fortune.
Good luck with that. She's got a job on her hands, what with Brick drinking away his present and lost in memories of his glorious past as a football hero. (He has broken his leg during a drunken midnight outing to the field.) Add to this self-loathing over the conflicted feelings that drove his closeted best friend, Skipper, to an early grave.
Although I'm not particularly partial to blondes, after watching Johansson spend half the play prowling onstage in nothing but a silk slip, I can honestly say that one would have to be blind to resist her as successfully as Brick does. Or at least blind drunk, which he is for much of the first two acts.
This being a play by Tennessee Williams, the master of perverse situations, it is Brick's indifference that compels Maggie. "I would kill myself if I thought you would never make love to me again," she says. "The victory of a cat on a hot tin roof is in just staying on it, I guess."
The situation arrives at crisis on the evening of Big Daddy's birthday, held at the Pollitt family estate in Mississippi. As a former farm hand who worked his way up to become owner of 28,000 acres of the richest land in the Delta, Big Daddy (played by Ciarán Hinds) is cantankerous. He's also cancerous, which his less-favored older son sees fit to lie about, telling Big Daddy and Big Mama (Debra Monk) that it's nothing more than a spastic colon.
Michael Park and Emily Bergl play Gooper and Mae, respectively, Brick's unloved older brother and his conniving wife. The duo try to come off as well-meaning while all the time maneuvering to supplant Brick in Big Daddy's eyes.
They flaunt their brood and deride Maggie for for being "totally childless, therefore totally useless." Their own five children, whom Maggie christens the "no-neck monsters," are a roving band of entertainers for an unreceptive Big Daddy.
Hatred, distrust and bitterness are the driving emotions in this dysfunctional family. As Gooper and Mae plot to take over Big Daddy's business and land, Maggie likens them to "a couple of cardsharps fleecing a sucker." Brick describes his relationship with Maggie as "occupy[ing] the same cage." Big Daddy calls Big Mama an ugly fat-ass. And neither parent hides their preference for Brick, broken as he is, over his driven brother.
Disheveled and depressed, Brick is the clear center of the action. His discovery that Maggie made love to Skipper [an attempt by both to get closer to Brick] pales to his certainty that their friendship was "the one great good thing that's true."
And while he tries to be a genial drunk, Brick is revealed to be very much like his father: a man who detests "lies and liars." But when denied the alcohol that shuts his mind off with a click, Brick begins to get cagey. This is when the play finds some of its best moments.
The scenes between Brick and Big Daddy are powerhouse Williams and elevate the entire production. Big Daddy gets him to admit that what causes him to drink is his disgust with "mendacity." And it is Big Daddy who, surprisingly, has no vitriol when he asks his son about the nature of his relationship with Skipper.
"Are you calling your son a queer?" Brick retorts. "Don't you know how people feel about that, how disgusted they are by things like that?"
Big Daddy is less judgmental. He has seen a lot in his life, including Jack Straw and Peter Ocello, the gay couple who originally owned the land that is now his.
Brick's one point of pride is that he has lied only to himself. He underscores this with a drunken revelation to Big Daddy, who in the end is more than willing to accept Maggie's own lie.
Scenic designer Christopher Oram captures the claustrophobic nature of this Southern gothic. The weathered wood that fills Big Daddy's mansion is the perfect metaphor for the state of the family within. Dry ice gives a nice approximation of a sultry night amid dogwood, weeping willows and magnolias. Even the house's curtains, with their gauzy fabric outlining Spanish moss, echo the lush flora.
The most sympathetic characters are the servants, who must stand stone-faced while all hell breaks loose around them.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is one of the most frequently revived of Williams' plays on Broadway, including in 1990 (Kathleen Turner as Cat), 2003 (Ashley Judd as Cat) and an all-black version in 2008 (James Earl Jones as Big Daddy).
There's a reason for that. "Cat" represents Williams in his element -- a family of schemers, climbers, self-loathers and, alternately purring and snarling, Maggie the Cat.
Even if you've experienced the play before or the great film version, catch this "Cat." Johansson proves that she can give a performance with claws out, ready to pounce on her prey.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" runs through Mar. 30 at the Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 W. 46th St. For info or tickets, call (877) 250-2929 or visit catonahottinroofbroadway.com/