Jan 18, 2013
Maggie is young and attractive, and she just wants to have sex with her hot husband — is that too much to ask? You can hardly blame her for being on edge: The man would rather spend his time in a boozy stupor than get cozy with his wife.
Frustrated and angry, Maggie (Scarlett Johansson) spends the entire first act of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” alternately taunting and pleading with hubby Brick (Benjamin Walker, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”). But he refuses to engage her, and wanders about their bedroom clutching a drink as he obsesses over his dead friend, Skipper.
Johansson didn’t pick the easiest vehicle for her second Broadway appearance — this is a big jump from the supporting role in “A View From the Bridge” that won her a Tony.
While her performance often lacks nuance and starts off too shouty, the star eventually gains in confidence. Spitting out Williams’ florid lines in a low-throated growl reminiscent of the young Kathleen Turner (herself a Broadway “Cat” in 1990), Johansson successfully brings to the fore Maggie’s rough edges.
She constantly reminds us that her character is no Southern belle, but a girl who grew up “poor as Job’s turkey” and married into a rich Mississippi family — or rather a nouveau riche one, whose luxurious home can’t hide a festering nest of greed and envy.
And now she’s stuck there, with a tortured husband, a bland brother-in-law married to a smug “monster of fertility” (Michael Park, Emily Bergl), and a domineering patriarch.
In contrast to Brick, his autocratic father, Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds), flaunts his virility. He boasts of always sleeping with his wife, Big Mama (Debra Monk, from “Curtains”), “and never even liked her, never did.”
But Big Daddy surprises us by being more accepting of Brick and Skipper’s intense relationship than the self-loathing Brick. Hinds and Walker dominate Act 2, beautifully bringing out the men’s fraught but strangely caring bond.
Then it’s Monk’s turn to surge, as Big Mama confronts her cancer-stricken husband’s mortality and the impending shift of power within the family.
“Cat” is like an opera in its overheated treatment of guilt, frustration and “mendacity,” and director Rob Ashford — better known for staging/choreographing musicals like “How To Succeed in Business” and “Promises, Promises” — treats it as such.
The actors constantly prowl Christopher Oram’s outsize set, so ginormous it might as well be at the Met Opera. The semicircular environment suggests a cage, with large windows but no walls: These people imprison themselves.
Despite occasional staging touches — the sounds of fireworks and playing children always seem to surge at momentous times — the show has a certain tragic inevitability. It’s a flawed but compelling picture of Southern discomfort.