Tennessee Williams never wrote a more explosive play than "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof."
In many of his plays there are vestiges of the genteel old South succumbing to ruthless modernity. Here, that world succumbed long ago, and its conquerors are squabbling over the spoils.
Because the characters are all so desperate, so grasping, it is easy to see them as kin to Faulkner's nasty Snopeses. In many ways they are. But Williams also gave them a pathos not always evident in this production, originally directed in London by Anthony Page.
As always in Williams, work, there is a sardonic, angry humor, which comes through here. But there are not enough quiet moments that would help us accept these people as worthy of our sympathy.
The strongest work is done by Ned Beatty as Big Daddy, the son of sharecroppers, who carved out an empire in the Mississippi Delta, and the heroic Margo Martindale as his long-suffering wife, Big Mama. Even when he is at his most vulgar, Beatty gives Big Daddy an inner strength that suggests a man who has risen above all his weaknesses, a chastening contrast to his alcoholic son, Brick, who clings to those weaknesses to avoid accepting his fate.
Jason Patric plays Brick. Patric is strong at reminding us of Brick's athletic prowess, but in his steady descent into drunkenness, we never really sense the pain that might make us want to root for him. Nor do we see the sexual ambiguity that, more than a broken ankle, has crippled him.
Similarly, as Brick's wife, Maggie, Ashley Judd displays a feline charm and resilience, but her resourcefulness seems to grow out of the same greed as her despised brother- and sister-in-law. We have too little sense of her innate delicacy or vulnerability.
Michael Mastro and Amy Hohn are delicious as her scheming in-laws. Edwin C. Owens is particularly good as the doctor who brings news of the severity of Big Daddy's illness.
Jane Greenwood's costumes convey all the characters' comic nuances. The late Maria Bjornson designed the elegant set.
Big Daddy constantly accuses his family of mendacity. If the overall tone were not so raucous and patently false, his indictment - and the play itself - would carry more weight.
There's nothing remotely feline about the critter who rules the new revival of ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' which opened last night at the Music Box Theater. As the Southern patriarch Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of familial lies and loneliness, Ned Beatty brings to mind a rooster bred for cockfighting, just released from his cage and rarin' to ruffle feathers.
It may be rotten ole mendacity that Big Daddy insists he sniffs in his battleground of a homestead on his 65th birthday. But from the moment Mr. Beatty first shows up in the play's second act, he brings with him the invigorating breeze of passionate, scrupulously detailed acting. As long as he is allowed to dominate the stage, Anthony Page's production exhales the galvanizing honesty that is the elusive holy grail for Big Daddy, as it was for the playwright who invented him.
Before Mr. Beatty arrives, the predominant aroma is definitely more artificial, like a magnolia-scented air freshener. This mostly has to do with the undeniably luscious-looking movie star Ashley Judd as Maggie the Cat.
The first act largely belongs to Maggie, a blood-pumping life force of a woman, as she tries to win back the, er, affections of her terminally disgusted, alcoholically abstracted husband, Brick (Jason Patric, another luscious-looking film actor), Big Daddy's favorite son.
This should be the most purely entertaining part of ''Cat.'' (It's all that a lot of people remember about it, thanks to the bowdlerized 1958 film version starring a lusty Elizabeth Taylor.) But in this production, it feels more like a teaser for the main event that is Mr. Beatty.
Ms. Judd, seen somewhat more advantageously on Broadway in a revival of ''Picnic'' in 1994, delivers her arialike monologues with clarity enough for the audience to savor their scorching wit and priceless Southern grotesqueries. But it's the performance of a self-conscious pupil in an elocution class.
As Ms. Judd gulps down a breath before taking on the next ornate hurdle of a sentence, you can imagine the penciled markings in her script. Although she is often funny (as well as beautiful) when Maggie gets really angry, this actress, so appealingly effortless in films like ''Ruby in Paradise,'' shows little spontaneity in ''Cat.''
Fortunately, there is much more to ''Cat'' than Maggie. The play may have had the longest original run of any of Williams's works for reasons of notoriety. After all, ''Cat'' dared in 1955 not only to address the problems of a woman whose husband wouldn't sleep with her but also hinted at homosexual longings in a man as masculine as Ben Gazarra, who played Brick to Barbara Bel Geddes's Maggie.
But the core of ''Cat'' -- and the reason it still resonates as one of the great American dramas -- is both more primal and more complex. Williams's favorite among his plays, it is perhaps his most impassioned and articulate statement on human isolation, the wrenching problems of communication between people and the ways in which death defines life.
These sentiments are expressed most forcefully in Act II, when Big Daddy takes his shot at bringing Brick back to life. As Mr. Beatty plays the scene, which was inspired by one of Williams's last conversations with his terminally ill father, you understand why the playwright wrote that with Big Daddy he achieved ''a kind of crude eloquence of expression . . . that I have managed to give no other character in my creation.''
Big Daddy is dying of cancer but has been deceived into thinking he suffers from only a spastic colon. And Mr. Beatty, who wears his sand-colored suit as if sheathed in sunlight, projects the heady omnipotence of a man who believes he has ''just now returned from the other side of the moon, death's country.''
The form in which he has emerged from this journey has little in common with the mother of all Big Daddys: Burl Ives, who originated the part on stage and screen as a mythic, mountainous vulgarian. Mr. Beatty's patriarch is a strutting, jig-dancing bantam, a Napoleonic figure who has willed himself into wealth and power.
What Mr. Beatty does better than any other Big Daddy I've seen is to convey without caricature the monstrous, exhilarated egotism of a man who believes he has outrun death. This is especially evident in the giddy cruelty with which he dismisses Big Mama (the funny and affecting Margo Martindale), the wife he has only pretended to love for 40 years.
When he jokily threatens to hit her with his birthday cake, it's actually shocking. And he brings the casual contempt of a man waving away gnats to Big Daddy's dealings with the greedy Gooper (Michael Mastro), his older son, and Mae (Amy Hohn), Gooper's predatory wife, not to mention their hideous children, the immortally named ''no-neck monsters.''
Yet this is also a man who for the first time has applied his native shrewdness to cosmic questions. And Mr. Beatty makes it heart-stoppingly clear that it's Big Daddy's sudden awareness of life's brevity that leads him into confrontation with Brick, the one person he genuinely loves.
Mr. Beatty brings out the best in Mr. Patric. This chiseled-faced actor, who appears to have spent many hours watching Marlon Brando and James Dean movies, takes Brick's self-anesthetized state to sometimes exasperating extremes. If there's no discernible spark of life left in this former sports hero, who's in perpetual mourning for the death of his best friend, then there's no dramatic tension in the campaign to resurrect him. It's a losing game from the get-go.
But with Mr. Beatty's prodding, this Brick awakens reluctantly and desperately to long-suppressed emotions. The resulting indignation and agony sting like a salted wound.
Mr. Page -- who directed a brilliant ''Doll's House'' in 1997 as well as ''Cat'' (also with Mr. Beatty) in London two years ago -- does admirably in elucidating the play's patterns of evasion and power struggles. The late Maria Bjornson's airy rendering of Brick and Maggie's bedroom gracefully suggests an ephemeral world in which walls offer neither protection nor privacy.
The so-called fourth wall between stage and audience is used here as a bank of mirrors, in which people keep checking themselves and the reflections of others. And Mr. Page makes acutely pointed use of the injured Brick's crutch as a tool in family power plays.
You'll find in your program a note from Mr. Page about the play's third act. There are three versions of it, since Williams was asked by the director Elia Kazan to rewrite his original, bleaker ending. (The one used here is a variation on the adaptation Williams provided for the 1974 revival.)
No matter the version, it's the weakest of the acts, as the greedy Gooper and Mae -- portrayed here with the usual gargoylish glee by Mr. Mastro and Ms. Hohn -- get their comeuppance. Ms. Martindale, who finds depths of pathos as well as the sad silliness in Big Mama, and Mr. Beatty, in a fleeting reappearance, give the act what substance it has. But it's Ms. Judd who is required to make it sing, and she's simply not up to it.
That said, this ''Cat'' offers thought-plumbing pleasures too seldom found on Broadway these days. In an essay about ''Cat,'' Williams spoke of his ability to open himself up to audiences in ways he felt he never could in social situations. ''I want to go on talking to you as freely and intimately about what we live and die for as if I knew you better than anyone else whom you know,'' he wrote. Mr. Beatty guarantees that the conversation goes on.
In this London-based production, directed by the highly regarded Anthony Page, that heat is especially oppressive, and the storms that it will bring, both literally and figuratively, are as obvious as the glass of liquor forever clinking in one character's hand. In the U.K., Brendan Fraser played that fellow, the tarnished golden boy Brick, and Ned Beatty was Brick's intimidating father, the Southern patriarch Big Daddy.
Beatty has stayed on for the Broadway run, but Fraser was replaced by another American film actor, Jason Patric, whose flair for haunted, brooding roles would appear to make him a more natural choice to play a former star athlete turned tortured alcoholic.
But the casting that created the most advance buzz on this Cat was that of Ashley Judd as Brick's tragically tempestuous wife, Maggie, a role previously interpreted by Barbara Bel Geddes, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Ashley and Kathleen Turner. Judd is certainly as beautiful as any of those women, and the sharp, sensual presence she has projected in movies — not to mention her Southern pedigree — boded well for this assignment.
Yet Judd's Maggie is only a qualified success. In her crucial first scene, where Maggie's frustrated longing and Brick's seemingly cruel indifference to it are established, the actress is overzealous in her anguish, spitting out some lines and swallowing others in a breathless fury. When Brick, who has broken his ankle in a drunken mishap, lunges at her with a crutch, you empathize rather too readily with his agitation.
Curiously, Page does little to rein in his leading lady. And while Judd's instincts improve as the play progresses, the director allows various actors similar indulgences later on, so that pivotal tense moments can devolve into muddled screamfests. In contrast, last season's superbly naturalistic Long Day's Journey Into Night featured scenes where characters yelled at and over each other, but never at the expense of clarity.
The principals are nonetheless impressive. Patric deftly handles the daunting challenges posed by Brick, finding the wry wit in his insolence and the pathos in his rage. Beatty, likewise, mines Big Daddy's humor and vulnerability, as well as his underlying decency. And Margo Martindale is amusing and touching as Big Mama, who patiently bears the foibles of her husband and son.
Similar endurance will be required of anyone who sits through this nearly three-hour production. Still, Williams' brilliance alone makes the long, hot ride worth it.
Recent Broadway seasons have boasted at least one, and sometimes two, major revivals of plays by Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, but the third definitive name in American theater history books, Tennessee Williams, has gone strangely unrepresented. The relative drought now comes to an end with Anthony Page’s exceedingly pretty but lopsided production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Not until Ned Beatty’s ferocious Big Daddy storms the stage in act two does Williams’ expansive tale of a Southern family squabbling in the shadow of death come fully alive. The production’s other marquee names, movie starlet Ashley Judd and the broodingly handsome Jason Patric, are certainly visually alluring, but not entirely effective in their demanding roles.
Taste is subjective, of course, but it seems to me that Broadway has never seen a more ravishingly beautiful feline than Judd’s Maggie the Cat. (Deepest apologies to prior Maggies, not to mention 18 years of chorus kids in a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza.) Gorgeously dressed by Jane Greenwood in flesh-colored silk and layers of coral chiffon, her milky skin and delicate features lovingly caressed by Howard Harrison’s lemony lighting, Judd is an idealized vision of 1950s womanhood in all its creamy perfection. Who’s to say that even the movie’s Maggie, legendary beauty Elizabeth Taylor — whom Judd at times recalls — could have looked this magnificent eight times a week?
But Maggie is not Suzy Parker, a frozen image from a vintage Vogue. She talks, too — and how! The play’s first act is virtually a solo aria for Maggie, punctuated by percussive bursts of disgust or disinterest from Brick, her hunky husband busy fishing for oblivion in a bottle of booze. And try though Judd vigorously does to fully inhabit the role, her performance is compromised by her inability to communicate the lyrical quality of Williams’ dialogue. You almost have to admire the thorough manner in which the actress pummels all the poetry out of the writing.
Judd captures Maggie’s relentlessness and her caged sense of frustration — you can see the veins bulging in her neck as she seethes at her in-laws’ machinations — but the character’s other qualities are steamrolled by the actress’s monotonous performance. Notably missing are Maggie’s sly wit — digs are delivered with a sarcastic drawl and a glare — as well as the fear, the insecurity and the sensitivity that should flicker darkly underneath the tough shell Maggie has constructed in order to make her way through life. After a while, the audience is tempted to join Brick in simply tuning the woman out. Delivered without the musical coloring that gives them eloquence and charm, Maggie’s tirades are simply exhausting.
Perhaps this is why Patric’s Brick is most potent in repose. Resisting Maggie’s importuning with a placid shrug and a prim purse of the lips, Patric draws us in with his mysterious, vacant gaze. Clad in white pajamas, Brick is the eerie ghost of the athletic young god he once was, and Patric hauntingly conveys the immense distance Brick has placed between himself and the world.
He may still await the “click” provided by liquor that will deliver him to absolute indifference, but even before that longed-for moment arrives, Patric’s Brick is observing the frantic convulsions that constitute daily life on the family plantation in the same cool way a spectator from another town might view a local parade.
The festivities in question are, of course, the spasms attending the imminent death of the family patriarch, Big Daddy. Maggie’s nettlesome desire to keep Brick on the edge of sobriety is motivated by a need to secure their place in the ongoing life of the plantation after Big Daddy’s demise. Her foes are the cartoonishly rapacious in-laws, Brick’s older brother Gooper and his wife, the “monster of fertility” referred to most commonly as Sister Woman. These gorgons of ambition, a comically inept, chicken-fried Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, are played with understated authority by Michael Mastro and Amy Hohn.
In the miniature cosmos of the play, they represent the life force at its most instinctive and crass. Williams’ play is at once a black comedy of family angst and a poetic meditation on the opposing forces of life and death, eros and thanatos. The combat between them is most fiercely fought in the person of Big Daddy, a great theatrical image of the vitality of human endeavor rubbing up against the irrefutable fact of its transience. In Beatty’s quietly fierce performance as Big Daddy, we see clearly how simultaneously noble, tragic and grotesque the conflict can become.
The specter of death has been made clearly visible here, in a production that is admirably scrupulous about surface details (the handsome set by the late Maria Bjornson is at once naturalistic and poetic). Big Daddy’s cheeks have a distinct gray pallor, and his suit hangs a little loosely on his frame, hinting at the flesh that has been eaten away by illness. But Beatty’s Big Daddy has an almost vicious ebullience that belies these signals: He bounces jubilantly on his heels as he unleashes a merry torrent of cruel taunts at his wife, played with an affecting dignity by Margo Martindale.
Big Mama has come to symbolize, for this man who believes he has just chased away the reaper, the death in life of his past 40 years. His revulsion for her is allied to his desperate hunger to strip away the layers of lies and evasions that he now realizes have sapped the joy from his existence. As we wince at his nasty barbs, we also admire his raging need to cut away the “crap” that clogs his path.
In the play’s scorching second act, Big Daddy tries to communicate to Brick his new sense of life’s mystery and glory. Big Daddy had evaded a reckoning with the truth of his empty life by throwing himself into his work, and he now sees his beloved son making a similar escape into booze and is determined to thwart it. Both men share a contempt for “mendacity,” but Big Daddy believes that underneath the lies of life is the real, true life, while Brick sees beneath them something else — for this young man haunted by the loss of his great love, the real truth of life is death.
Their battle rages freely, for almost an hour of stage time, and it is the captivating highlight of Page’s production. Beatty’s marvelously blunt and forceful Big Daddy is the invigorating factor here; Big Daddy’s desperate determination to throttle his son’s demons is as touching as his vulgar vitality is hilarious. Patric holds his own, although the effort begins to show. His performance becomes increasingly eccentric and mannered as Brick’s emotions are laid bare by his father’s inquisition — it seems to gradually evolve into a florid, self-conscious tribute to Marlon Brando.
Still, the play’s emotional climax casts its sad spell as Brick throws down his trump card, the truth about Big Daddy’s diagnosis. The impact of this ugly irony — that Big Daddy’s crusade against “mendacity” has itself been founded on a lie — sinks slowly into his spirit, disorientation giving way to recognition and finally fury. When he returns in the play’s anticlimactic third act, the anger has abated. The battle is over: The last lie has been exposed and death appears to be the victor. Or is it? Maggie, the play’s real image of fertility, asserts the power of regeneration with her announcement that she’s pregnant. Another lie, of course, but a more comforting one. We’re left with a consoling paradox — today’s lie could be tomorrow’s truth.