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."