Saturday, January 26, 2013

Scarlett Johansson stars in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

I’m sure one of the first things you’ll want to know about the latest Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, How is Scarlett Johansson as Maggie? Quite good, thank you for asking. The sexy part comes naturally to her, of course, but she also conveys the edgy nerves of this tightly wound southern beauty. Her Maggie is ready to burst with sexual frustration over a husband who won’t sleep with her and her fear of returning to the near poverty of her youth.

I’ve seen quite a few Maggies by which to compare Johansson’s. Tennessee Williams’s classic, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1955, has been revived on Broadway three times in the last decade alone. And I was fortunate to see the 1974 production with Elizabeth Ashley, the revival that many people still speak of with awe, and rightly so.

Rob Ashford directs this latest offering, which is at the Richard Rodgers Theatre for a 15-week engagement. The cast includes Benjamin Walker as Maggie’s alcoholic husband, Brick, and an excellent Ciaran Hinds as her father-in-law, Big Daddy Pollitt, a crude, obese man who through his own hard work and wits has become the richest cotton planter in the Mississippi Delta.

The first of the three acts belongs to Maggie, and Johansson, in only her second appearance on Broadway, convincingly carries off her character’s nonstop wrought and frequently humorous commentary on her bratty nieces and nephews, whom she calls the “no-neck monsters,” her husband’s shunning of her and their resulting childlessness and her fear that Big Daddy will leave his estate to Brick’s older brother, Gooper.

Although I wasn’t impressed with Johansson’s Tony-winning turn in A View from the Bridge in 2010, I found her Maggie to be far superior to the other two recent portrayals, those by Anika Noni Rose in the 2008 all African-American cast production and Ashley Judd in 2003.

Walker is not quite as strong, but his Brick is fine. If ever a young actor had pressure on him it would be Walker -- stepping into a classic role, playing opposite a Hollywood star who won a Tony her first time on Broadway, and knowing his mother-in-law, who just happens to be Meryl Streep, would be in the audience at some point. But he handles the part well, the drunken indifference as well as the passionate fights with Maggie over his love for his former classmate and football teammate Skipper and with Big Daddy over his drinking.

Debra Monk captures Big Mama’s strength and well as her flightiness. Emily Bergl as Maggie’s fertile (five no-neck monsters and one on the way) sister-in-law, Mae, and Michael Park as Gooper are fun as they bow and scrape to Big Daddy in their attempts to take over his estate, 28,000 acres of the finest land in the south, as Big Daddy likes to boast.

All have gathered at the Pollitt plantation to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. But the lies -- the “mendacity” -- can only stay buried so long. Williams poignantly reveals them one by one.

As always, Maggie and Brick’s bed is the dominant feature of the set, which this time has been designed effectively by Christopher Oram. (As Big Mama says, when a marriage goes on the rocks, that’s where it starts.) Neil Austin’s lighting provides a brooding gothic quality in keeping with the play’s theme of things being darker than they appear on the surface. Julie Weiss designed the costumes, including that slip Maggie is famous for parading around in throughout Act One after one of the no-neck monsters ruins her dress by hurling a buttered roll at her.

I don’t think I could ever grow tired of a well-done Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If three revivals in 10 years is excessive, at least in this case the third time is the charm.

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