I don’t know where their voice boxes are located,” Maggie the Cat says of her brother-in-law’s five noisy “no-neck monsters,” early in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. On that line only, Ashley Judd’s performance rings true: This young woman clearly doesn’t know where her own voice box is located, or how to support the tone it produces, or much of anything else about acting. Watching her and Jason Patric struggle through their careful, empty replication of real actors performing the fiendishly difficult first scene of Williams’s play is one of the most frighteningly arid theatrical experiences I’ve ever had, even on Broadway. It’s like being invited to review an exceptionally inadequate understudy rehearsal.
Not all of the latest revival of Williams’s problematic 1955 masterpiece is that painful. Patric, though equally weak in the voice department, has two advantages over Judd: The long second-act confrontation between Brick and his father is one of the most powerful scenes Williams ever wrote, and Ned Beatty, playing Big Daddy, is an actor of unwavering force even when, as here, he has a wavering grasp on the role. The combined pressure of his and Williams’s intensity stirs Patric to some emotional life, and director Anthony Page sculpts the curves of the scene to its fierce climax.
Much of the rest is mere competence, with Margo Martindale’s warmly vivacious Big Mama an exceptional bright spot. But Cat demands, and deserves, major actors in its two lead roles; the Hollywood pasteboards that British producers mistake for American theater artists just won’t do here.