Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 13, 2008
Debbie Allen's new Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof delivers first-class entertainment. Credit Williams for creating irresistible characters that actors can sink their teeth into. And credit Allen's top-notch cast, which includes movie star Terrence Howard, rising theatre star Anika Noni Rose, and pretty-much-legendary stars James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad for bringing these vivid individuals to life.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place at the Mississippi mansion of Big Daddy Pollitt, a former field hand and overseer who worked hard to make himself master of (as he terms it) "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile." Big Daddy has two sons. Gooper, the elder, is a lawyer married to a grasping woman named Mae, with five kids and one more on the way. Brick, the younger, is a high school football hero whose career as a sportscaster on TV has been interrupted by his alcoholism. Brick's wife is Maggie, an ambitious young woman whose description of herself gives the play its title. Brick refuses to sleep with Maggie, jeopardizing (in her view) their chances of inheriting Big Daddy's estate. And inheriting the estate is very much the issue of the day, because although Big Daddy and his coarse, overbearing wife Big Momma have not yet been told, the fact is that Big Daddy has terminal cancer and is about to die.
Cat was written in the mid 1950s, and Brick and Maggie's story—her sexual aggression and his possible repressed homosexuality which is presumed to be the root of his alcoholism—was racy, sensational stuff back then. It's still the stuff of gaudy soap opera today, of course; but it makes the play feel dated. We know too much about alcoholism to root for Brick nowadays (he spends the entire play, which takes place over the course of a single very eventful day, drinking and drinking, trying to achieve "the click in my head that makes me peaceful"). And Maggie's apparent lack of any other options beyond being a wife feels like a vestige of another time, as well.
But the main themes of the play are timeless: we want what we want, whether or not it's good for us; greed and mendacity never, ever go away; and the will to survive—to cling to life at all costs—is indomitable. These fundamental aspects of the human condition are things we all share, and watching Big Daddy and his brood grapple with them makes for the most compelling kind of drama.
The first of the play's three acts is focused on Maggie and Brick, and rightly belongs to Rose, whose energy and vivacity and growing desperation as the "cat on a hot tin roof" is breathtaking to behold. I saw in her Maggie something I'd not detected in others of my experience—a sense of raw calculation, as if each of her varied and many attempts to seduce, or at least get through to, her indifferent husband were a carefully planned stratagem or tactic...and not necessarily something she's not tried before.
The center of the play, in Act Two, is a long conversation between Big Daddy and Brick. James Earl Jones, so welcome again on stage, dominates this section (and, indeed, the rest of the play) as the patriarch. From the moment of his entrance, chomping a huge cigar and pausing to survey his kingdom (while basking in the deserved ovation from the audience), Jones owns this role. He plays it entirely straightforwardly: this is a man who enjoys his power, enjoys his life, and intends to hold onto both as long as possible. But he also sincerely wants to understand why his favorite son went so astray.
The final third of Cat finds Big Daddy largely absent while his relatives squabble over the estate (even though Big Daddy remains very much alive), and it is here that Phylicia Rashad as Big Momma comes into her own. Rashad is terrific in this role, breathlessly waddling about in an unflattering wig and dress, shod in shoes that seem to not quite fit and, as my companion pointed out, make her ankles look swollen. But this is no mere surface portrait: Rashad shows us the heart and spirit of this woman, who has suffered but learned from her long marriage to Big Daddy, and her surprising assertiveness near the end of the play feels exciting and genuine.
Giancarlo Esposito reveals Gooper to be every inch Big Daddy's son in a strong turn of his own. But as Mae, Lisa Arrindell Anderson feels miscast—her performance is the production's one serious misstep, in my view. Her Mae is too attractive, too smart, too well-put-together to provide contrast with Rose's Maggie. Without that contrast, somehow the stakes of their catfights feel oddly diminished.
Howard's take on Brick is valid but difficult. Brick is, to be sure, as passive a leading character as any ever placed on stage. But Howard plays up the detachment to a point where he's almost not there, sometimes. It's amusing watching him utterly tune out Rose's chattering Maggie in the early moments of the play. But when Jones's Big Daddy is trying to connect so fervently, it's frustrating to us in the audience that Howard's Brick refuses to make even the tiniest effort.
Allen's realization of the play is forthright and direct. There are a couple of problems: she introduces each act with a saxophone player wailing an appropriately languid, bluesy tune, and in each of the acts she places one or another of the main characters into a confessional spotlight; both of these choices carry us out of the otherwise naturalistic world of this play, while adding nothing useful theatrically. But overall, this is a very successful rendition of Williams's work. Allen's designers, especially costumer Jane Greenwood, provide expert support.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's place as an American classic is pretty well assured by now, I guess, and the sterling performances of Jones, Rashad, and Rose help us understand why.