Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may just be the high point of Tennessee Williams’ career bringing him his second Pulitzer Prize and much acclaim before the long slide of his later years. After five starry Broadway revivals, the Williams estate has licensed the first Off Broadway production and the long, uneven current Ruth Stage production at Theatre at St. Clement’s may demonstrate why they waited until now.
While the play is rooted in its original 1955 period (its language, social mores, references, three-act form), this revival directed by Joe Rosario has attempted to place it in the present from the contemporary set and clothing and such props as cell phones and a great many uses of the f-word. However, without updating the dialogue, the play does not make sense reset in 2022, particularly in its archaic handling of homosexuality as it was referenced pre-Stonewall. Its themes of deception, greed and “mendacity” (a word made famous by this play) would seem to make the play contemporary but everything else about it including its hothouse atmosphere marks it as a product of its time period.
The physical setting for this play is extremely important as all three acts take place in a second floor bedroom-sitting room where former football star Brick Pollitt has taken refuge in the Mississippi Delta plantation home in the middle of “twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile.” Having broken his ankle the night before jumping hurdles on the high school play field, he is hobbling around on one crutch.
We discover that he is in hiding from his beauty queen wife Maggie and his father’s 65th birthday drinking himself into a stupor. We later learn that he is guilty about the suicide of his best friend and teammate Skipper who revealed to him over the phone his guilty secret of the love that dare not speak its name and that he had tried to sleep with Maggie to prove it untrue but had failed.
Since the other characters all come to find first him and then Big Daddy Pollitt, the single setting must work for the entire play. Matthew Imhoff’s bedroom with a sofa and armchair at one end, a bar in the middle, and a double bed and vanity at the other is attractive in its modern elegance. However, as draped across the wide stage of Theatre at St. Clement’s, it requires the actors to continually walk back and forth across the stage, awkwardly regrouping in Rosario’s blocking. An another odd touch is the shower directly behind the bar without walls or shielding. Is that a new item in the latest bedrooms?
Maggie, Brick’s wife nicknamed “Maggie the Cat” by her husband, is a difficult role as she basically has a 30 minute monologue at the top of Act One attempting to reach the remote Brick who is disgusted by her even though she is still both beautiful and sexy. In this role Sonoya Mizuno, a former ballerina, making her New York stage debut has a great deal of trouble keeping this speech interesting. Rather shrill and strident, she ends up unsympathetic so we do not root for her to win at the final curtain as we should. She is not helped by a very thick Southern accent nor Ben Levine’s sound design which seems to make her voice come through a speaker on the opposite side of the stage from where she sits at a vanity table and the air conditioning or ventilation system which drowns out some of the dialogue thoughout. As Brick, Matt de Rogatis, dressed for most of this scene in nothing but a towel and covered with tattoos, is suitably brooding and surly but brings little variety to his confrontations with Maggie.
Aside from Brick dealing with the fear that his relationship with Skipper was homoerotic, there is the question of his father’s health. Big Daddy has just returned from the Ochsner Clinic and his wife Big Mama and he have been told he just has a spastic colon by the family to spare him on his birthday when in fact he has terminal cancer which explains his continual pain. Brick cannot deal with the lies that family has seemed to thrive on for years. In the second act where the ailing Big Daddy confronts Brick over his drinking, Christian Jules Le Blanc, playing against type as a wiry, limber 65 year old, very different from the burly Burl Ives who originated the role, impresses as he prowls the stage attempting to understand his son, his drinking and his relationship with his wife, before being told the truth of his condition.
While Alison Fraser is certainly up to the task of portraying Big Mama, the rather deluded Southern belle grown older, she is strange casting for a woman Big Daddy describes as old and fat. Glamorous and statuesque, Ms. Fraser seems to be a trophy wife rather than a faded relic of former days. However, she does score her own points in her battle with her children when she is told the truth about the husband’s condition. As the greedy, grasping older son Gooper and his catty wife Mae, Spencer Scott and Tiffan Borelli are rather bland as they try to get Big Daddy to put his holdings into a trust and gossip about Brick’s not sleeping with his wife which they surmised by having listened through the wall of their room.
Their five children, called by Maggie “the No Neck monsters,” are unaccountably played by two attractive teenage girls rather than the raucous adolescents they are meant to be. The set is backed by an unreal yellow and orange Technicolor sky in Steve Wolf’s lighting design which looks like the fade out of a western epic and we hear unconvincing rain and thunder on the sound track periodically. The attractive contemporary costumes by Xandra Smith only remind us that the play is actually set in the 1950’s rather than downplay it. At over three hours, the famous play has its high points but the conflicts within the misguided production deflate the high-flown talk and make it feel long and drawn out. This Cat on a Hot Tin Roof feels rather under heated even in this hothouse environment.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (through August 14, 2022)
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.ruthstage.org/cat
Running time: three hours and ten minutes with two intermissions