BY DAVID KENNERLEY | “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of the most frequently staged plays on Broadway. While no one disputes that Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about familial infighting on a gracious Mississippi Delta estate is a masterwork, more than a few eyebrows were raised when yet another revival emerged, the third in less than a decade.
Questions swirled around the new production. Would director Rob Ashford inject some unusual twist that might uncover fresh dimensions while staying true to the original? What could Scarlett Johansson possibly bring to Maggie the Cat beyond what we’ve already seen with Anika Noni Rose, Ashley Judd, or Kathleen Turner? Can Benjamin Walker’s bourbon-soaked Brick stand his ground against Maggie and Big Daddy while wearing an ankle cast? Would the true nature of Brick and Skipper’s bond be brought more vividly out of the closet?
For those of you looking for a big, juicy exposé, you’ll be disappointed. This is not the train wreck some wags were forecasting, nor is it a definitive revelation, either. What we simply have here is a solid, affecting version that should satisfy purists and tourists alike.
Unlike the 2008 experimental revival, which assembled an African-American cast and had the audience guffawing when the defeated Brick was writhing on the floor begging for his crutch, Ashford has wisely stuck fairly close to the original.
Operatic love triangle among Maggie, Brick, and Skipper just as tragic as ever
But it was not always that way. The inventive director, best known for his musical work (“Evita,” “Promises, Promises”), originally toyed with inserting Skipper’s ghost to haunt the proceedings, perhaps stressing the homoerotic nature of his relationship with Brick. In an interview with Playbill.com, Ashford said it was “very important to give the image of Skipper as not effete but as another Brick.”
But the device just wasn’t working. Perhaps bowing to howls of protest from critics in the blogosphere, the ghost was banished.
Johansson, who won a Tony Award for her first outing on Broadway, “A View From the Bridge,” is a worthy, cat-like Maggie. She does indeed sound like she’s been “running upstairs to warn somebody that the house was on fire!,” as Brick observes. During her impressive tirades that dominate Act 1, her voice shows signs of hoarseness beyond her hunger for the sexual attentions that Brick, pickled in liquor, will not or cannot provide. What’s more, she’s a knockout in that form-fitting silk slip.
“Oh, I might some time cheat on you with someone, since you’re so insultingly eager to have me do it!,” she hisses. “Well, I’m taking no chances. No, I’d rather stay on this hot tin roof.”
Not that Maggie is the only character with the claws out. Firstborn son Gooper (Michael Park) and wife Mae (Emily Bergl), a “good breeder” with five children, are scratching to wrest the estate from Big Daddy, who’s dying of cancer but doesn’t yet know it (they lied and said it was just a spastic colon).
As played by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds (known stateside for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), Big Daddy registers as a vindictive devil bent on making others’ lives hell while he makes plans for pleasure. Hinds’ Big Daddy, a self-made tycoon lording over 28,000 acres of cotton, is plenty full of “hawk” and “spit” and viciously insults poor Big Mama (Debra Monk), but lacks the vulnerability required to make us truly empathize with him.
For the most part, the plucked and buff Benjamin Walker (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) looks like he stepped out of a Dolce & Gabbana ad. Clad in a white towel or a wife-beater and silk pajama bottoms, his Brick is as hard and cold as the ice he plunks into his highball glass.
It’s not until his epic showdown with his father in Act II, revealing the dirty truth behind Skipper’s death, when Brick comes to life. He claims he is disgusted with “mendacity” and people wishing Big Daddy a happy 65th birthday and many happy returns when they know there won’t be any. But it’s also disgust with himself for not facing the truth about Skipper’s love.
Appropriately, Ashford sees this tragedy as an opera and amps up the mood with a whale of a thunderstorm, fireworks, and a chorus singing spirituals.
One minor misstep is in the casting of those “no-neck monsters” that Maggie complains about repeatedly during the first act, bitter because she has failed to produce a child. The kiddies’ rickety dance number, a “present” for Big Daddy that’s meant to be insufferable, comes off as charming. These kids are flat-out adorable. They are not fat brats — they all possess visibly slender necks.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF | Richard Rodgers Theatre | 226 W. 46th St. | Through Mar. 30; Tue. at 7 p.m., Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun at 3 p.m. | $75.75-$152.25 at ticketmaster.com