NEW YORK — The Playbill for the new revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre places three names in bold letters above the title: Scarlett Johansson, Ciarán Hinds and Benjamin Walker. From an outsider’s perspective, this stressing of the three accomplished actors makes sense, but it turns out that Debra Monk (relegated to a spot below the title) is the real reason to catch this otherwise tepid production.
Monk, a cherished Broadway veteran, infuses her character of Big Mama with heartbreak and strength, teeter-tottering between the two extremes. She’s in love with her husband, Big Daddy (Hinds), and refuses to face his mortality, wanting to believe that his current medical problems are only due to a spastic colon.
While Mama and Daddy fret over death, Brick (Walker) and Maggie (Johansson) do essentially the same thing. They’re a relatively young couple, but their problems are systemic. They haven’t consummated their marriage, and the entire family is waiting for Maggie to become pregnant. Because everyone lives on top of everyone else in this Mississippi estate, the entire family knows Brick and Maggie are no longer intimate. Few secrets are able to remain secret in the Politt household.
Maggie, in the first act, tries to get Brick to notice her, even parading around with hardly any clothes on. Brick, suffering from a busted foot, hobbles around their bedroom, trying every which way not to look at his wife. He’s not interested in her aggressiveness, in her difficulty of being a “cat on a hot tin roof.” He’s too choked up about the recent death of his friend, a man he was attracted to on many levels. Brick claims the relationship was a deep friendship, but the family is starting to suspect that he’s hiding something, bottling it up like a war wound.
Johansson, whose role demands almost a nonstop, hour-long monologue in the first act, can never make the southern accent sound just right. Her feverish line delivery and constant maneuvering of her hands make for a distracted, disappointing portrayal. Whereas Johansson borders on overacting, Walker’s Brick is hardly felt on stage. The part, which is at the crux of the nearly three hours of drama, needs to be a combination of brokenness and brawn. Walker looks the part, but his faraway glances never register, and he sucks much of the sultriness out of the revival.
Hinds and Monk, in the flashier roles, excel much more than their counterparts. Hinds is cruel and somehow engaging; it’s almost hard to take one’s eyes off him. He commands respect and attention, walking around Maggie and Brick’s bedroom as if he can go anywhere and ask any question. He never thinks twice, and has no problem with the way he comes across.
Monk, who is the gem of the cast, enlivens Big Mama with some fire. She’s strong-willed and authoritative, but also completely subservient to Big Daddy. She seems to live on a razor’s edge, scared of what will happen next, always trying to grasp control of the situation. It’s a fine, fine performance.
Rob Ashford’s production plays out on an enormous set that is cleverly designed by Christopher Dram. The voluminous Richard Rodgers Theatre is better suited for musicals, but the scenic design for this play fills the area well. Large doors shelter Maggie and Brick’s bed, and there’s an enlarged balcony in the background. The see-through drop curtain gives a lonely, woodsy feel to the surroundings. The characters have freedom to breathe, but they’re imprisoned in this large estate.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, surely one of the classics from Williams’ repertoire, takes a skilled cast and director. The character of Brick sometimes can be overshadowed by the boisterousness of the playwright’s other creations. Unfortunately, in this revival, that’s exactly what happens. Nothing quite feels right, and the drama unfortunately suffers.
By John Soltes / Publisher / [email protected]
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Rob Ashford
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Ciarán Hinds, Benjamin Walker and Debra Monk
Running time: two hours, 45 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions
Currently playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre at 226 W. 46th St. in Manhattan. Click here for more information.