By Isa Goldberg
There is major distraction on the st
age of "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," and it’s driving Scarlett Johansson, a much-underplayed Maggie "The Cat", to utter despair. The distraction is her husband – in name only – Brick (Benjamin Walker), a man whose muscled, smooth, naked torso begs for caressing. Walker joins the roster of demigods who have played the role beginning with Paul Newman as someone to obsess about. Yet this Brick, shored up by a crutch, buried in thought and seeking drunken oblivion appears untouchable.
Johansson, on the other hand, plays against type. She does not play the role as a sex icon. Her Maggie is focused, direct, understated, and while she may claw, she’s never cloying. She’s catty, upset at her withholding husband and her in-laws with their "no-neck children." Most of all, she is self-involved all while wishing Brick would be more involved with her. Clearly, she keeps her feminine wiles deeply under wraps.
Director Rob Ashford delivers Tennessee Williams’ classic with soft shoes, dancing around the callow faces in this mendacious, money hungry family as they speed to self-destruction or, more dangerously, the opportunity to destroy one another. While it’s a rather laissez faire approach to one of the most volatile dramas in the American canon, it has certain payoffs. As portrayed here, Williams’ characters are less the distorted emblems of the anti-bellum era, which appear cartoon-like, and more naturally players who strut their way through dysfunctional family life. Unfortunately, it’s their dysfunctional behavior that is only superficially addressed in this revival.
In fact, the primary protagonist here is The Bed. Looming large at center stage, it is the focal point of all the action and inaction.
Emily Bergl as Gooper’s (Michael Park’s) ruthlessly acquisitive wife and Brick’s sister-in-law blisters continually in pursuit of Big Daddy’s fortune while Park, as the faceless son and husband just stands by. In a very different manner, he is as helpless as his brother.
Only one character quakes through these calm waters, erupting instantly. That’s Big Mama, played with a loud, intrusive and ultimately hysterical air, by Debra Monk. At times, her high drama brings much-needed comic relief to the insufferable imposed restraint that pervades. Meanwhile, Ciaran Hinds is a statuesque presence as Big Daddy, a rational thinking man. But having seen at least three major revivals in recent years, I found his descent into painful fatality, his fights with Brick, his cries of outrage and his distortions predictable.
Indeed, the central conflict between father and son is supplanted here by the relationship between Brick and Maggie. When they embrace in the play’s final moments, Maggie’s sexuality finally emerges from her core, arising so genuinely that we imagine that the two may actually, finally, come together. It’s a tease, for we never get close enough to Brick to recognize how doomed he and the relationship really is.
Christopher Oram’s set design creates a fluid open playing space around their expansive bedroom with a broad balcony onto which Brick intermittently flees. But in Big Mama’s home, where no one is allowed to lock a door, privacy is hard to achieve.
The scant towel (designer Julie Weiss) in which Brick is sheathed is frustratingly efficient. Johannson, while beautifully garbed is never "over the top." Unfortunately, neither is this production, which in spite of its apparent realism and transparency never sparks the fragile tragedy of Williams’ poetic drama.
"Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" is at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street through March 30th. For tickets call 877-250-2929, go to Ticketmaster.com, or visit the box office.
Photos: Joan Marcus
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