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picture - Cat on a Hot Tin RoofTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published March 25, 2008


Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

now playing on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theater

through June 15


Tennessee Williams’ plays may take place in specific locations – St. Louis or New Orleans or a family estate in Mississippi – but they are firmly situated in the poetic regions of the heart. Inhabited largely by outsiders and misfits, uneasy in their skins, trying desperately to reach out to each other, these plays changed not only the shape of the theater as we knew it, but the way we looked at ourselves. Williams’ own personal favorite, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, arguably the greatest work in his entire oeuvre (the one that takes place on that family estate in Mississippi ), is getting a rousingly entertaining revival this season, and attention must once more be paid to the theatrical legacy he bequeathed to us.


Run, as they used to say, don’t walk, to the Broadhurst Theatre, and see it in all its glory.

It is particularly fitting – since recent revivals of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie seemed bent on unconsciously destroying the reputation of the greatest of our American playwrights – to see this particular play restored so scrupulously. It’s been revived before – some may even feel that it has been revived too often – but it has probably never received a production that would have given Tennessee Williams himself so much pleasure if he had lived to see it.


Anyone who has ever heard Williams in the audience laughing at his own plays will never forget that gleeful and contagious cackle of his; and that cackle, to these ears, is resounding these days and nights at the Broadhurst. One suspects, too, that the one play he continuously fussed around with, in his desire to get it right, is finally being performed as it was originally envisioned, and finally and so beautifully achieved. And that might have brought tears to the playwright’s eyes. Structurally his most fascinating work – it is a domestic tragedy nestled within a social farce, built around a series of explosive dramatic arias, laced through with wildly funny chunks of Rabelaisian humor – it has proven, in the past, to elude anyone trying to contain all its complex elements in one production. But Debbie Allen, in her Broadway directorial debut, whether by design or by happy accident, has got it all together.


The Pollits have gathered together to celebrate the 65th birthday of Big Daddy, the head of the family, as well as the news that his cancer has been misdiagnosed. Of course, the cancer has not been misdiagnosed at all, but the truth is being kept from Big Daddy and his wife, Big Mama. However, his less-loved son Gooper and Mae, Gooper’s eternally pregnant wife, know the truth only too well and are avariciously eager to see that they and their brood of no-neck monsters inherit Big Daddy’s fortune, and that Big Daddy sign the family estate over to them, before he finds out that he is indeed dying. But Big Daddy, thinking that he has been given a brand new lease on life, is in no great rush to sign anything over to anybody, at least not until he is reconciled with the one thing in the world he truly loves, his son Brick.


Now Brick, for those of my readers who may not know the play, is speedily on the path towards an alcoholic crackup and ultimate wreck, and his marriage to Maggie the Cat, like his bourbon, is definitely on the rocks. And, for those of you who only know the film version, Brick is also having a serious and seriously unspoken moral problem with questions regarding latent homosexuality, which, believe it or not, happens to be as difficult to talk about in 2008 as it was in 1955, when Cat was first written. Brick can use what Big Daddy calls fancy words, like ‘mendacity,’ but he can’t wrap his mouth around a word like ‘homosexuality.’ Brick, in his drunken haze, doesn’t give a damn about any inheritance (children who are loved rarely do), but Maggie surely does. Maggie may be infertile, and likely to remain so as long as Brick stays as far away from her as he clearly intends to, but her ace in the hole is that she does have ‘life’ in her, something that has certainly not escaped Big Daddy’s attention, and she will do anything to prove that when she says ‘life,’ it is more than a metaphor for ‘life.’


So there you have it. That is the play, and all Ms. Allen has done is to serve up that play, none other, on a handsome platter. On the periphery, there is the farce complete with unwritten wills, lots of sassy talk about lies and sex, and a noisy circus of a party going on where characters walk in and out of rooms with the same haphazard frenzy with which they skirt the truth, and each character has inside him or her a corresponding caricature. There is just enough truth to justify our recognition of them as human beings, but the fact that they are overplayed is crucial, if not downright essential, to the cartoonish goings-on that Williams has created. Lou Meyers as Reverend Tooker, the Pollits’ spiritual advisor, and Count Stovall as Doctor Baugh, who gets paid well to keep the truth from getting out, could go even farther out than they do, and Lisa Arrindell Anderson’s Mae could be a tad subtler, but they, along with Giancarlo Esposito as Gooper, and, most memorably, Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama, are deliciously and hilariously off-kilter.


picture - Cat on a Hot Tin RoofAnd, in the center, there is a life-and-death battle between three of the most gorgeously written tragic figures to whom Williams has ever given theatrical and poetic life. Anika Noni Rose’s Maggie literally bursts into the first act and races with unabandoned energy through one of the most demanding parts in American dramatic literature; she is sensual and sexy but she is also wonderfully funny, because she understands that Maggie’s sense of humor is even more necessary to her survival than her beauty. Ms. Rose gets a bit lost when her Maggie is not center stage, but her final moments are stunning and, better still, stunningly in character. Here is a Maggie we can respect and root for, even as we maintain a certain amount of disgust for her more questionable behavior. This is as close to the Maggie that Williams imagined, not always likeable but always spirited. Terrence Howard is a brilliant comic foil to Ms. Rose in this act, while simultaneously developing his human credentials as a haunted Brick.


But it is in the second act pas de deux between Howard and the great James Earl Jones, in the role of Big Daddy, a role he was clearly born to play, that this production takes on the shattering dimensions that separates it from other past productions. Finally, the scene between them – and just watching the interplay between these two actors is akin to being privy to a master class on the art of acting – is being played, just as Williams himself declared it should be played, as a love scene. Jones’ Big Daddy is more paternal than patriarchal, without losing an ounce of stature or size, a man who acts very differently with his beloved Brick than with anyone else (with others, he puts on a kind of show, a little bit of what is expected of him rather than who he really is). He genuinely wants Brick to face the truth about himself and his relationship with Skipper; he even suggests (and it is exactly what appears in the text) that he “understands such things,” that he has “knocked around” in his time, that he inherited the plantation from the two gay lovers who owned it and picked him up, when he was a hobo, and gave him the job that led to his current position. It is Brick, holding slavishly to his platonic ideal of pure love, a love that is without sexuality, who cannot face the truth; and in one heart-stopping, head-snapping moment, so sharply defined that I couldn’t help but wonder if the actors were capable of hitting that same note performance after performance, that the point Williams was always trying to make was finally made. If all Ms. Allen did was to allow her two actors to find the existent and simple beauty of the second act it would have been enough to make this production the extraordinary production it is.


If I suggested that she may have come upon it by accident as much as by intention, it is because she has not been so lucky in some areas. Ray Klausen’s set needs more open space. Among the design elements, only Jane Greenwood’s costumes are telling in any substantive way. The bluesy intrusion of a sax player suggests bluesiness, but it is an intrusion. Some of the comic performances, as I’ve already suggested, could have been sharpened.  But when you’re sitting in a theater, having a grand time, and telling yourself that this is what all experiences in the theater should be like, and when a great playwright is being given his due, as an artist but also as an entertainer, what more, after all, can you ask for?


harveyperr @


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