There are more ways to kill a cat than by choking it with revisions. But ever since its first Broadway outing in 1955 - under the often heavy hand of Elia Kazan - Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" has been a movable feast, with at least four slightly revised, authorized texts.
In the version that opened last night - barely five years after the last Broadway outing - that naughty four-letter word is in, but Big Daddy never tells his dirty joke about the elephant.
More obvious is the fact that this is the first all-black "Cat." What happened to colorblind casting?
Well, in fairness, while that works in Shakespeare, it can present difficulties in plays as time- and space-specific as "Cat," difficulties even an all-black cast can't quite surmount. No matter.
Director Debbie Allen and her producers have assembled a stellar cast, notably James Earl Jones as the cancer-wracked patriarch, Big Daddy, in a portrayal of bluster and subtlety that will surely leave a permanent mark on a role he both inhabits and embodies.
And Jones is simply the first among an exceptional cast, including Anika Noni Rose as Maggie, the roof-clinging cat lady; Terrence Howard as Brick, her alcoholic and self-closeted husband; Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama, Big Daddy's wife; and Giancarlo Esposito in the much smaller but significant role of Brick's older brother, the mean and nerdy Gooper.
The story of a rich Southern family in a time of crisis and an atmosphere fraught with what Brick and Big Daddy call "mendacity" has the pungent smell of decaying magnolias.
Williams - anxious for the mood and essence of this play, set a little south of Chekhov, to survive as powerfully as he felt it - wrote a long and startling stage direction.
It's about 250 words long, and in part it reads: "I'm trying to capture the true quality of experience, that cloudy, flickering evanescent - fiercely charged! - interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis."
He urges his actors (and us) to try to escape "facile definitions that make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience."
A telling phrase, "a snare for the truth." Ironically, that's the essence of this, perhaps his most truthful play: the lies we tell other people and ourselves, the lies we live and die by, the truths we evade and ignore.
Apart from Jones' masterly Big Daddy, the other performances, guided by Allen's unshowy direction, are also all essays in truth, mendacity and consequences.
Rose's sexy yet poignant Maggie beautifully delineates love and desire against a pragmatic awareness of poverty. At the same time, Howard's low-key, high-tension Brick, waiting for the click of drunkenness to get him through another day of denial, and Rashad's broken yet defiant Big Mama - her face a barometer of a family's pain - fuse into one picture.
I've seen smoother stagings of the play, but this one is well worth seeing. It has satisfying power and little or any "mendacity."
Those eternal adversaries, irresistible force and immovable object, clash with gusto in the first act of the otherwise flabby revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which opened Thursday night at the Broadhurst Theater.
The irresistible part of the equation is embodied most persuasively by Anika Noni Rose as that determined Southern seductress Maggie the Cat. Taking on the immovable duties is Terrence Howard, in his Broadway debut, as Brick, Maggie’s self-anesthetized husband.
Watching Maggie test her will of fire against Brick’s Scotch-glazed shield of ice sends off such lively sparks that for the show’s first 40 minutes or so you wonder if this might not be the most entertaining “Cat” since Elizabeth Ashley had her way with Keir Dullea more than three decades ago. But as any of Williams’s disappointed characters could tell you, life is full of pretty hopes that fade before your eyes.
It’s starting to feel as if “Cat,” first staged in 1955, has become as frequent a visitor to Broadway as “Rigoletto” is to the Metropolitan Opera. The previous revival, starring Ashley Judd, Jason Patric and Ned Beatty, closed only four years ago. But this melodrama of Southern-fried mendacity, Williams’s personal favorite, is blessed with temptingly juicy roles that larger-than-life actors can’t wait to squeeze.
So there was reason to be excited when this latest incarnation, directed by Debbie Allen, was announced. And not, at least for me, because of the novelty of an all-black cast. (By transporting the play from the 1950s and the age of Jim Crow to a later, unspecified decade, Ms. Allen wisely pushes past the issue of race.)
What sounded promising was the matching of performers and roles. James Earl Jones, of the earth-shaking baritone and overpowering stature, as the tyrannical, filthy-rich Big Daddy; Phylicia Rashad, who won a Tony as the long-suffering matriarch in the recent revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” as his long-suffering wife: it was as if these parts were their birthrights.
Most tantalizing of all was the idea of Mr. Howard as their alcoholic son, Brick. Mr. Howard brought an eye-opening freshness to the perennial screen archetype of the sensitive but manly brooder in his Oscar-nominated turn as a small-time pimp in “Hustle & Flow.” The big question, it seemed, was whether Ms. Rose, hitherto known as an able supporting actress (“Caroline, or Change” and the film version of “Dreamgirls”), would be able to hold her own in such daunting company.
As it turns out, Ms. Rose more than holds her own. She pretty much runs the show whenever she’s onstage, and when she’s not, the show misses her management. Mr. Howard and Mr. Jones have moments that suggest what they might have made (and possibly still could make) of their roles. And Ms. Rashad presents a creditable, if arguably misconceived, Big Mama. But this time it’s Maggie who rules the Pollitt family’s dusty old house of lies.
Ms. Rose’s Maggie is less ornately stylized than earlier versions (including Ms. Ashley’s and Kathleen Turner’s, as well as Elizabeth Taylor’s in the 1958 film), and she more or less ignores Williams’s baroque descriptions of the character’s changes in timber and tempo. But what Ms. Rose grasps, with riveting firmness and clarity, is Maggie’s hard-driving sense of purpose.
Maggie, as you may recall, has an exceptionally clear through line for a Williams character. She has to make her husband, long absent from her bed, have sex with her again. This is because: 1) she really loves him; 2) a woman has her needs; 3) if she doesn’t conceive a child, it’s possible that the estate of the terminally ill Big Daddy will go to his other son, Gooper (Giancarlo Esposito), who has an annoyingly fertile and conniving wife (Lisa Arrindell Anderson).
It’s the hot-and-bothered aspect of Maggie that originally made “Cat” a succès de scandale. But it was her unyielding will to survive that most interested Williams.
Though Ms. Rose wears a slinky slip as beguilingly as Ms. Taylor did, it’s her take-charge energy and unembarrassed directness that make this Maggie such a stimulating presence. When she exclaims, “Maggie the cat is alive!,” you can only nod in admiring agreement.
The play’s first act has always been Maggie’s, an aria of insistence and supplication directed at Brick, who, having broken his leg, is a captive audience. But what a perfect audience Mr. Howard’s Brick is here, doing his best (and understandably failing) to tune out a wife who keeps prodding open wounds — like his suspicious closeness to his best friend, Skipper.
Brick is often played in the first act with robotic disaffection. Mr. Howard is more visibly amused, disgusted and drunk than any Brick I’ve seen. You’re always aware that the click into numbness he aspires to has yet to arrive, lending a livelier than usual dynamic to his avoidance of Maggie.
The problem is that by the second act, when Big Daddy and Brick confront the truth together, Mr. Howard is wearing his character’s pain all too palpably, mopping his eyes and tearfully bleating his lines. This turns Brick into a wounded little boy instead of the willfully numbed creature he must be to challenge Big Daddy into anger.
As a consequence Mr. Jones is forced to play his character as a blustery but affectionate fellow whose vulgarity masks a good heart, not so different from the lovable codger he recently portrayed in “On Golden Pond.” Ms. Rashad, in turn, seems to grow in supportive strength and mother-knows-best wisdom. The production acquires a haze of sentimentality that makes it soft when it should be sharp.
The same might be said of Ms. Allen’s direction. There’s plenty of life in her staging, which keeps an army of Pollitts and servants, assembled for Big Daddy’s birthday, running around Ray Klausen’s standard-issue Southern-mansion set. There is even, for reasons beyond my ken, a saxophone player (Gerald Hayes) who struts across the stage before each act.
The resulting atmosphere is festive, for sure, and the show is never boring. But too often it’s without focus. Ms. Allen tries to resolve the problem by having her principal characters awkwardly spotlighted for their defining soliloquies. (William H. Grant III did the oddly abrupt lighting.) But she needs to rein in her cast.
Mr. Esposito, Ms. Anderson and even on occasion Mr. Jones resort to broad exaggeration more appropriate to a sitcom. And Mr. Howard is allowed to punctuate Brick’s speeches with slackening silences of interior exploration on which the audience is not invited to accompany him.
I will admit that I have yet to see a perfectly balanced “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” What I recall of Anthony Page’s version in 2003 is Mr. Beatty’s magnificent Big Daddy.
But Williams wrote that with “Cat” he was “trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent — fiercely charged! — interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” The only fiercely charged element at the Broadhurst is Ms. Rose’s Maggie. This “Cat” cries out for more lightning.
After bouncing between top directors and watching a string of marquee-name actors circle and then withdraw due to scheduling conflicts, producer Stephen C. Byrd's long-gestating project to mount an all-black "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway seemed to acquire an air of doom. But the venture has come together as a sexy, starry entertainment, its artistic shortcomings likely to be overshadowed by its commercial strength. While Debbie Allen's inexperience as a director shows in pedestrian physical staging with a tendency toward heavy-handedness, she lucks out where it most matters -- with her powerhouse cast.
First things first. For anyone wondering what revelatory new insights are brought by the recasting with African-Americans of Tennessee Williams' 1955 three-act drama about a wealthy family squaring off for power in the encroaching shadow of death, the question is moot. The reflections on mortality might take on richer spiritual resonance out of the mouths of black actors, and Williams' poetically salty dialogue might acquire different rhythms, but the interpretation is essentially unchanged.
It does, however, show that with only minor excisions to the text, approved by the Williams estate, this indestructible American classic can be made accessible to a broader ethnic casting pool. By virtue of its history, the play's evocation of the South does seem redolent of the 1950s. But while a black Mississippi Delta cotton plantation owner might not fit that time frame, the design choices of Allen's production fudge the period just enough to make anachronism a non-issue.
One of the surprising characteristics of "Cat" (like "The Glass Menagerie") is the way its focus shifts depending on the production.
Most stagings tend to revolve around Maggie, the feral beauty fighting to protect her position in the clan despite an alcoholic, possibly gay husband who can't stand the sight of her, and grasping in-laws eager to stake their claim on the estate. Others, like the 2003 Broadway revival, are dominated by dying patriarch Big Daddy, in that case due largely to the towering quality of Ned Beatty's performance next to wan leads Ashley Judd and Jason Patric.
The heart of this revival (and coincidentally, its top-billed cast member) is Brick, the laconic former pro-football star wrestling with questions of repressed homosexuality following the death of his beloved teammate, Skipper.
Simmering with disgust at the hypocrisy and greed of the volatile figures all around him while seeking only to withdraw into his bourbon bottle until the "click" in his head brings peace, this is the play's most self-contained role. So it might also be argued that it's the most difficult. Casting an untried stage actor as Brick was a risk, but Terrence Howard delivers. It's an understated performance that taps all the quiet, sleepy-eyed charisma of his screen work while also accessing the lacerating wounds of a man forced to confront emotional questions he'd rather ignore.
The central second act is largely a two-man bout in which Big Daddy, empowered by the false assurance of a clean bill of health, goads Brick into addressing the roots of his alcoholism, causing him to respond by revealing the truth about Big Daddy's inoperable cancer.
With James Earl Jones giving magnificent life to the cruelty, the ribald earthiness and the unexpected tenderness of this blustery self-made man, the production achieves the rare distinction of an entirely credible and deeply felt father-son bond at its center. The two men's shared distaste for mendacity seems to derive less from experience than from similarities that run in their blood. There's evident love between them that outweighs both Big Daddy's hardness and the wall Brick has constructed around himself.
Phylicia Rashad's Big Mama also is a stirring figure, fluttering about in desperate denial of her empty marriage and impending widowhood. Like her husband, this is a woman of formidable passions, her expansive maternal nature unable to prevent her loving Brick more than her oily first-born, Gooper (Giancarlo Esposito).
Rashad's restless body language here stands in contrast to the more poised command of her recent Broadway work in "A Raisin in the Sun" or "Gem of the Ocean." She's tremendous at showing how a lifetime of absorbing hurt has not quashed her love; watching her cower beneath the blows of Big Daddy's cutting dismissal is heart-wrenching.
As Maggie, Anika Noni Rose is sleek and beautiful, her creamy skin poured into Jane Greenwood's figure-hugging dresses and the obligatory iconic satin slip. Preening and posing playfully through the first act, she strongly outlines her refusal to accept defeat to Brick, ignoring his dogged detachment, his cool warning glances and even his violent lunges.
Sliding her legs up the bedpost while arching her back with feline sensuality, she's a feisty woman fully aware of her assets, justifiably certain of her charms and resolved not to see her status diminished to its former modesty. Rose's interplay with Lisa Arrindell Anderson as Gooper's equally calculating wife Mae crackles with bitchy antagonism.
But while her Maggie pays lip service to her fears regarding the "hideous transformation" that's made her become hard and frantic, Rose never fully conveys the panicked ferocity of a cornered animal. And in the third act, when Maggie's steely determination prompts a rash and potentially humiliating lie, the actress loses rather than gains power. She seems just a little too naturally soft to sell this indomitable character's resilience.
However, some uncertainty in one of the central performances is not the production's significant failing. Its chief weakness is Allen's mechanical direction, her draggy pacing and cheesy devices like punctuating each act with a saxophone player wandering across the stage blowing bluesy notes. We get it, sad and sultry.
The tricky balance between naturalism and florid theatricality in Williams' writing has undone many productions and Allen stumbles in a too-literal execution of that dichotomy. The director's often maladroit blocking also is not helped by Ray Klausen's awkward design. The single set of a stately but unlived-in bedroom backed by semi-transparent walls that reveal the balcony and exterior columns beyond, plus a clumsily used anteroom off to one side, looks inelegant and artificial. And William H. Grant makes one prosaic lighting choice after another, tirelessly italicizing the monologues by isolating them in spotlights.
While the production hums along on star power, it's too bad there's not a fully developed visual imagination at the creative helm to match the intuitive skills of its actors.