Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams would be so disappointed if he could see this limp production of what he considered the favorite of his plays. He might appreciate its historic aspect -- it’s the first time it’s been done on Broadway with an all-black cast -- but he couldn’t help but find fault with Debbie Allen’s direction and the cast members’ performances.

The biggest problem is with Anika Noni Rose as Maggie. In the first act she sounds more like a hyper teenager talking on a cell phone on the subway. You want very much to tune her out. Yes, Maggie does talk a lot in this scene as she tries to get Brick’s attention, but she’s supposed to do it in a calculated, needling way. Rose talks so fast she sounds manic.

She looks a bit manic too. For some reason Allen has her take off her stockings and slip and put on new ones after one of the little “no neck monsters” has soiled her dress with a buttered biscuit. But all I could think was, why doesn’t she just change her dress? The stocking and slip were fine. I imagine Allen was trying to give her something to do while she did all that talking, but it just makes her seem like a wind-up toy in overdrive. This keeps her from seeming even the least bit sexy, even when she’s parading around in her underwear.

On the other hand, Terrence Howard as Brick, appears comatose. Brick is supposed to be trying to be indifferent to Maggie, but he can’t help finding her amusing. Howard has the indifferent part down pat, but he comes off closer to a corpse than a former star athlete turned TV sports announcer.

That was the first act. The second is even worse, and seemed interminable. James Earl Jones as Big Daddy also seems lethargic, which he shouldn’t be in his confrontation with Brick. This scene should have tension sizzling up, but it had none.

Phylicia Rashad is miscast. Acting-wise she’s an effective Big Mama, but not appearance-wise. She looks far too glamourous, and actually comes off as sexier than Maggie.

I wasn’t the only one disappointed. A young woman two seats away from me was complaining during the first intermission. She kept comparing it to the original, which confused me. She was much younger than I and I wasn’t around for the original. Then I heard “Elizabeth Taylor” and I knew she was talking about the 1958 movie. I told her the original had been produced on Broadway in 1955 and she was surprised. She thought she was seeing a new play based on the movie. Oh, dear, don’t they teach Tennessee Williams in school anymore? During the second intermission I could still hear her talking about how much better the “original” was.

As I said, I missed the original, but I saw all three previous revivals. The first, in 1974, was blessed with Elizabeth Ashley, who was the gold standard of Maggies. I also saw Kathleen Turner, who was appropriate, and Ashley Judd, who wasn’t.

Thank heaven cats have many lives, and may poor dear Maggie reincarnate real soon.

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