Scarlett Johansson in a scene from Act I of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
It’s all about the Bed, placed prominently center stage in set designer Christopher Oram’s palatial bedroom/sitting room, around which Tennessee Williams’ play about sexuality and fertility and “mendacity” and mortality, literally and figuratively, centers. The bed on which director Rob Ashford has his characters focus. The bed of the two old male “sisters” who built the huge Mississippi plantation now owned by Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds). The bed, key to security for his daughter-in-law Maggie (Scarlett Johansson), on which she and her husband Brick (Benjamin Walker) do not make love. The bed he avoids, punishing her for an ultimately fatal transgression with his best friend Skipper. The bed around which Brick’s brother Gooper (Michael Park) and wife Mae (Emily Bergl) parade their “no necked monsters” to beguile Big Daddy on his 65th (and last) birthday. The bed over which Big Daddy and Brick scramble and circle in a gripping father-son confrontation. The bed to which Big Momma (Debra Monk) comes to hide from the truth of Big Daddy’s health. The bed on which Goober places his fateful briefcase filled with papers for passage of the property to him. And ultimately the bed, that cushion of fertility, holds the promise of the future as Brick is finally lured onto it.
Williams has divided each of the three acts (!) by character. The first act is Maggie’s. And it is Scarlett Johansson who sets the tone and energy of the play with her entrance. The actors listen intently from backstage and follow suit with their performance.
She is the “cat” of the title and she must stay on that roof, inflamed by lies and greed, driven by ambition to stay alive. Her future security and escape from her impoverished past lies in producing an heir from Big Daddy’s favorite son. Since he is terminally ill the time for conception is imminent.
Maggie needs to break through the alcohol anesthetized Brick. Her series of long-winded, alternately manipulating, cajoling, desperate and threatening soliloquies are relentless and exhausting to listen to. The genius is in their delivery since Williams is not only verbose but repetitive.
There are house cats and alley cats but this Maggie is neither. She neither mews like a pussy cat, nor snarls like a predator. She neither sidles nor begs. Her trademark husky voice, sometime muddy and hard to hear, is more direct and often more grating than seductive.
To this end one would expect costumer Julie Weiss to drape Miss Johansson’s natural curves in a Jean Harlow-type clingy satin slip in which to plead her case. However, in a less alluring garment, this Maggie does not slink or slither as did some of her predecessors. Rather than purr, she prowls and pounces using Williams’ bountiful barrage of words to wear down rather than seduce her prey.
Indeed, targeted by this relentless verbal onslaught one would not blame Brick from hitting her with his crutch (as he tries and fails), the response of an animal cornered and unable to escape except through the bottle. He looks upon her with loathing at worst and indifference at best. Brick seems to see underneath this rigid exterior, stubbornly resistant.
The bedroom is inhabited by the ghost of Skipper, Brick’s former teammate and best friend with whom the relationship continued past college, often to the exclusion of Maggie. To Brick that bond was “pure,” but there are hints that it might have ultimately ventured into the profane. Maggie committed the unpardonable sin of testing this relationship with Skipper with disastrous results and for which she is imprisoned in this “purgatory” of punishment.
Outside, the din and frequent interruptions of Gooper’s fertile family emphasizes the desperation of being childless on Maggie.
Ciarán Hinds and Benjamin Walker in Act II of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Act Two, the most brilliant of the three, delivers one of the most gripping father/son battles on this or any other stage.
Brick’s duel with Big Daddy is gripping and spellbinding, painfully revelatory as Williams orchestrates it, almost musically, with repeating strains that only barely increase in information each time. It is exasperating and difficult as Big Daddy pounds away to get at the root of Brick’s drinking, even referencing the bi-sexuality of the plantation’s founders in an effort to ease him into recognizing the probable nature of Skipper’s attention to him. He is trying to imply that homosexuality is not a shocking situation to him, though certainly not condoned. Brick writhes and fights against Big Daddy, who exhibits both sensitive and fierce love for even hinting at this and the battle ensues. All the while the audience knows that Brick has the final coup de gras, the information that Big Daddy is in fact is dying of cancer. We wait with foreboding. Will he go there? What will happen? And then he does and we can see Big Daddy visibly deflate as does Brick, more anguished in the telling than in the withholding.
It is sound designer and composer Adam Cork who undermines Act Three which is underscored, (in this case overscored) literally, with heavily handed strategically placed thunder, celebratory firecracker explosions and songs sung (as scripted) by field workers adding to and overpowering the crucial chaotic scene in which truths emerge with devastating consequences. The children corner Big Mamma with their “acts,” Gooper insists on her signing the papers, the music crescendos along with the chaos. Big Daddy disappears and returns, Mae is braying about how she and Gooper deserve the plantation because of their family. And Maggie shocks them into silence with a startling revelation.
And so “the bed,” which opens the play, once again becomes its focus.
Mr. Hinds is formidable, erasing at times the images of those in the part before him, in the crackling Act Two brawl with his son. He has an equal adversary in Mr. Walker who admirably times his emergence from indifference to outrage to humility. His is the moment of stunning drama as he divulges the secret of Big Daddy’s prognosis. Miss Monk is outstanding in her lesser part as Big Mamma (big in stature if not fact) as she deflects Big Daddy’s humiliating insults, happy in her persevering love and the knowledge that he will live, then poignant and terrified as she panics and crumbles at the formidable truth of his illness.
Mr. Park and Miss Bergl are terrifically annoying and whiny in their voracious grasp for the gold. As the house staff, bringing their own, non-verbalized back stories to the stage, Tanya Birl, Will Cobbs, Lance Roberts and Cherene Snow stoically endure insulting racial slang references such as “poon tang” with aplomb. Brian Reddy conveys a thankless role as the ineffectual doctor with dignity.
Ciaran Hinds and Debra Monk in a scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
In addition to “the bed,” Mr. Oram’s set is ingeniously designed to accommodate the many entrances and exits (mostly unwanted intrusions of Gooper’s family) and forced exits, the constant opening and closing of the huge doors, create intimacy when closed and much needed breaths of air when open. When the doors are closed we can see the rest of the family passing by or eavesdropping, when open we can hear the workers singing and hear and see the fireworks arranged for the occasion.
When Cat first burst on the scene in 1955 the New York Times critic called it Mr. Williams’ finest drama. It may not be the finest this time around but it certainly enhances an admirable season of revivals.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (through March 30, 2013)
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes