Jan 17, 2013
Imagine one of the plucky little orphans of “Annie,” all grown up and fixing her sights on a sprawling Delta plantation, and you get an idea of the impression Scarlett Johansson makes in the shrill though not entirely uninteresting new Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
As opposed to some past Maggie the Cats — portrayed by actresses as varied as Elizabeth Ashley, Kathleen Turner and Anika Noni Rose — Johansson seems in director Rob Ashford’s production less a neurotic receptacle for Brick’s passive-aggressiveness than a resilient, battle-tested survivor, determined to break her husband’s celibate resolve.
It’s a choice, all right — an ingratiating one at that. And in this version of the Tennessee Williams play, which had its formal opening Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, it comes across as of a piece with the other central performance, that of Ciaran Hinds, as Big Daddy. In Hinds’s rendition, the plantation patriarch is a growling dispenser of spite, the beast to Johansson’s beauty. I’ve never seen a “Cat” in which Big Daddy was quite so thuggish — or in which his appetite for Maggie was so blatantly on display.
The crudeness in Hinds’s interpretation sets the tone of one-dimensionality that characterizes much of Ashford’s staging, and in which Debra Monk’s Big Mama, a whooping, guffawing fool of a woman, also conspires. You’d never know that this big old house, in which Benjamin Walker’s matinee-idol Brick is committing suicide by distilled spirits, sheltered much in the way of finer feeling, or quieter desire.
And yet, despite its penchant for the histrionic, Ashford’s “Cat” is a better-rounded evening than either of the other plays that have opened on Broadway lately: Roundabout Theatre Company’s grating revival of William Inge’s “Picnic” and Manhattan Theatre Club’s overheated staging of the Laurie Metcalf star vehicle, “The Other Place.”
Under Sam Gold’s direction, the 1953 “Picnic” feels like some desultorily ancient variation on “Desperate Housewives,” in which the Kansas womenfolk hang out on porches, breathe heavily and ogle the local merchandise. That side of beefcake is portrayed on this occasion by Sebastian Stan, as one of those magnetic ’50s rebels, here buffed by Bowflex to modern superhero proportions. With such potent actresses as Ellen Burstyn and Elizabeth Marvel shoehorned into depressingly unctuous roles — only preternaturally melancholy Mare Winningham manages to breathe authentically here — the play lurches patronizingly from the portrait of one lonely woman to the next.
“The Other Place,” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is a new play by Sharr White, about a brilliant scientist named Juliana in the grips of a brain-wasting disease that she herself happened to have been studying. In a fleet 80 minutes, it seeks, via Metcalf, to bring us into the eye of a terrifying storm: the chaos enveloping a highly disciplined if emotionally troubled mind. More contemplative works about women and illness, such as “Wit” (ovarian cancer) and “Wings” (stroke) have taken audiences on similar journeys. But while Metcalf has the intensity of presence to captivate us with Juliana’s plight, director Joe Mantello wires the proceedings so predictably for emotional explosions that we’re given precious little time for understanding the character and thus grasping what she’s going through.
At least in the new “Cat,” the sense of menace activated by Hinds’s Big Daddy provides a rationale for the mean-spiritedness spreading through his household like an oil slick. The husky-voiced Johansson, who won a Tony for her performance two years ago as the all-too-desirable dockworker’s niece in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” holds her own here, managing a persuasive account of Maggie’s quick wits and pragmatic focus. What’s missing, though, is her drawing a bead on the character’s insecurities, the desperation that compels Maggie to cling to a lie — and to a man who reviles her. (Walker, who played a rock star president in the irreverent-history musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” lives up to his character’s name here, imbuing Brick with a stony, one-note sullenness.)
In a homestead where everything seems too spelled out, however, you wonder what has happened to the secrets. Even Christopher Oram’s set telegraphs its intention: the big bed Brick and Maggie do not share is by far its most prominent feature. At one point in the production’s evolution, the director went so far as to make a flesh-and-blood character out of Skipper, the unseen football teammate who killed himself over love for Brick.
Fortunately, that idea was abandoned during preview performances. It’s an indication, though, of what is still apparent: Where penetrating theatricality is concerned, this “Cat” scratches only the surface.