By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
The photo of Scarlett Johansson on the cover of the program is exactly what you want for a Maggie the Cat: smoldering with desire, that signature luscious mouth and the heavy-lidded bedroom eyes. But the Scarlett/Maggie onstage is nothing like that: she’s trim and tidy, and her hair is right out of a 1950s beauty parlor. Her deep-voiced Southern-accented speech is neither languid nor flirty nor desperate, but aggressive and business-like, somebody who can deal efficiently with “weak beautiful people” like her husband Brick.
Tennessee Williams’ masterwork, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, was due for another starry revival, but this one contributes nothing to the long history of the play in production and gives us nothing memorable, nothing that reveals the play in some new way, or even in some satisfying old way.
Cat is, of course, always engaging: the story of a family living on a plantation (“28 thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile”); Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds) is dying of cancer and the plot turns on which of his two sons will inherit. Will it be the feckless Brick (Benjamin Walker), married to Maggie, who is troubled by a dark secret that keeps him drunk as well refusing sex and therefore children? Or the repulsive and greedy Gooper (Michael Park), married to the even more repulsive and greedier Mae (Emily Bergl) and their five—soon to be six—“no-neck monsters.” Big Mama (Debra Monk) is desperately devoted to a husband who “cannot stand” her, but their cruelty to her that should make us wince is downplayed here.
The prominent Irish stage actor Hinds (TV’s “Game of Thrones) plays Big Daddy without any of the grand Southern style and the entitlement we expect, but rather like a cigar-smoking CEO. Walker (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) plays Brick as a very contemporary sort of mess: where is that icy detachment, the “broken, tragic elegant figure” crucial to the role? None of these actors seems a good fit for these characters.
This is especially true for Johansson, although much of what seems missing at the heart of all their performances may be in Rob Ashford’s direction. We’re told it’s hot, they keep opening the French windows, but nobody seems to be hot—where is the Southern languor, the oppressive, steaminess of the Mississippi Delta? Everyone is bustling around. Ashford uses the set (designed by Christopher Oram) in odd and awkward ways, often obscuring the very reactions we need to see, eliminating the full-length mirror Maggie admires herself in. The big brass bed is front and center as it should be (“When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there” Big Mama says, pointing to the bed). But everybody winds up there, sitty, weeping, and rolling around on the bed with their shoes on.
Cat is a play about disease: not just the cancer that is destroying Big Daddy, but the “mendacity” and “disgust” devouring the family, and, by implication, American society: much more is at stake than the land, and we should be more powerfully moved than I, at least, was this time through.
RICHARD RODGERS THEATRE, 226 WEST 46TH ST, NY Tickets $ 75.75-152-25. Information: 800-745-3000