By: Samuel L. Leiter
July 24, 2022: There have been five Broadway revivals, all of them star studded, and one with an all-Black cast, since Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened in 1955. While not all were of equally high quality, none missed the litter box like the current version, the first to open Off Broadway (at St. Clement’s Theatre).
Produced by Ruth Stage and directed by Joe Rosario, this production of Williams’s operatic drama about sexual dysfunction, familial greed, and that old standby mendacity, sets the play in the present day, as signaled by Xandra Smith’s costumes. It also uses the version in which Big Daddy (Christian Jules Le Blanc) reappears in Act 3. (Williams and the play’s first director, Elia Kazan, disagreed about whether Big Daddy should be seen in Act 3; Kazan’s argument that he should prevailed.) A cell phone is briefly seen, but when a phone rings, it’s a landline that Big Mama (Alison Fraser) has to make a special entrance to answer when Brick (Matt de Rogatis) and Big Daddy ignore it. And there are more f-bombs exploding than in your grandma’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
But such mild distractions don’t overcome this sluggish, misconceived production’s problems. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof requires actors at the top of their game to handle Williams’s realistic/poetic dialogue and psychologically complex characters; they must also mine the otherwise depressing relationships for nuggets of dark humor. I heard a gentle chuckle or two over the course of its poorly paced, clumsily staged three hours, but the general impression was bleak, monotonous, and uninspired.
As one might expect, the greatest fault lies in the casting. Sonoya Mizuno, a Japanese-born British actress, originally a ballet dancer, makes her New York debut as Maggie the Cat, the sexually frustrated beauty queen whose husband, Brick, is soaking himself with drink because of guilt regarding his possibly homosexual inclinations. The sylph-like Ms. Mizuno can’t handle the Southern accent, screeches many of her lines (she’s a cat on a you-know-what, after all), and often depends more on feline, dancer-like movements than on histrionic depth to get her points across.
Mr. de Rogatis, his athletic body covered in tattoos and his hair cut in an abbreviated mullet, looks more like a thug than the scion of a wealthy Southern family, but he brings a believable sense of anguish to Brick; he just needs a Maggie with whom the audience can identify as someone who might convincingly bring him out of his sexual lassitude. Brick, recently injured in a drunken fall, wears an orthopedic boot—not a cast—on one foot; his constant hobbling about with a cane, falling down several times during arguments, becomes an annoyingly repetitious device, especially as the direction has him always on the move; Mr. de Rogatis handles the business well, but his much abused cane itself deserves a credit in the Playbill, especially for how well it resists the urge to shut Maggie up during her interminable Act 1 ranting.
Broadway veteran Alison Fraser’s Big Mama, a role typically played by a woman of sizable matriarchal authority, is instead presented as a high-strung, slightly ditzy trophy wife, her big, blonde hair worn in a bouffant, her short, skintight dress showing off a slender, sensual frame suggesting that if there’s a cat to be found in this domicile, it would be of the cougar variety. Ms. Fraser, with her cute, raspy voice, is always an interesting presence, and she does what she can with Big Mama, who has to wait till Act 3 to show her acting claws, but her speech is sometimes muffled; given the occasional distortion of other actors’ dialogue, which those around me confirmed, this may partly be the fault of Ben Levine’s spotty sound design.
Mr. Le Blanc’s Big Daddy, like Ms. Fraser’s Big Mama, is big only in the hair department. Sporting a distractingly impressive mane of white, shoulder-length hair, and a white goatee, he looks more primed to play a Confederate general than Big Daddy Pollitt, the wealthy Mississippi plantation owner suffering from cancer, but willing to believe it’s nothing more than a spastic colon. Unlike the traditional white-suited Big Daddys, this one is garbed in dark blue. Mr. Le Blanc, an actor best known for his soap opera work, roars and rages like an amateur King Lear. Rather than projecting an image of stolid power, despite his feet of clay, he shuffles about awkwardly, perpetually wincing (that damn colon, I guess), and periodically faces forward to deliver his lines as if they’re arias. Mr. Le Blanc isn’t the only one guilty of this, which seems simply another manifestation of Mr. Rosario’s misguided blocking choices.
Spencer Scott and Tiffan Borelli, as Gooper and Mae, Big Daddy’s manipulative son and daughter-in-law, who hope he’ll leave his estate to them and not to Brick and Maggie, bring nothing particularly interesting to their roles. Their children, the No-Neck Monsters, are played as two bratty teenage girls (Alexandra Rose and Carly Gold), and, like the actors playing Rev. Tooker (Milton Elliott) and Doc Baugh (Jim Kempner), make little impression; there’s certainly nothing “no-neck” about them.
Matthew Imhoff’s bed-sitting-room set occupies all of the wide St. Clement’s stage, with a couch at our left, a bar up center, and a bed at our right. Running behind them from one side to the other is an open hallway—there are no walls—beyond which we can see a panoramic sunset. At selected moments we hear pops of unconvincing thunder and see equally phony flashes of lightning illuminating the lowering skies. You can’t count on Steve Wolf’s lighting to enhance the Southern atmospherics.
This revival of Williams’s play, considered one of his classics, does nothing for its reputation. For all the efforts to bring it up to date, it comes off as talky, static, old-fashioned, and as steamy as a day in March. Of course, even stars don’t necessarily have the answers, as anyone interested in reading my review of the 2013 Broadway revival (scroll to entry 55) with Scarlett Johansson, Benjamin Walker, Ciaran Hinds, and Debra Monk can see. As I said there of what I considered a botched attempt to create a hothouse atmosphere, “You can’t have a hothouse without heat.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through August 14, 2022
Photography: Miles Skalli