What a relief it is to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. You’re likely to hear plenty of complaints about the new production of Tennessee Williams’s 1954 drama, including some further down in this column, and there’s never been any lack of complaint, puzzlement, or dubiety about the script itself. But what a relief to see a big, substantial play, and to remember that there were—and still are—playwrights in America who don’t niggle and fuss and indulge in nouvelle-cuisine eyedropper games merely to serve up minute portions of something warmed-over and flavorless. Though it calls for a larger cast than we usually see onstage at today’s wage levels, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not gigantic in scope; its bigness is a matter of substance, not epic sweep.
It’s a simple, one-set, 1950s family play. “But what a family!” you might exclaim, which shows you where Cat‘s substance resides. Williams took pains to make his characters interesting, even exciting; more to the point, he vested the excitement in their relations to one another. And he made it emerge from their depth: As with any great play, the measure of Cat‘s quality is that we’ve come to know its people and accept them as part of our lives, like the Lomans and the Tyrones. This isn’t a matter of superficial “recognition,” but of human essences. We know Big Daddy and Brick and Maggie, and even Reverend Tooker with his costly new air-conditioning system, not because they’re just like the folks next-door—heaven forbid!—but because their inner essence gives their externals the strength of reality.
Cat‘s subjects are life, death, love, and honesty, big matters even in the smallest context. All the characters lie, some to others and some to themselves. Love, in particular, seems easy to lie about because its truth is so mysteriously hard to gauge. Both Big Mama and Maggie, at key points, assert that they love their respective spouses, and get the identical rejoinder, italicized by Williams: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?” Men in Williams’s universe have distinct trouble accepting love. It’s always puzzled me that people rack their brains over whether or not Brick is “gay.” If a straight man knows that he’s caused his best friend’s suicide, and that his wife helped precipitate it, how contented can he be? Add that his best days are behind him, that he despises his conniving brother and sister-in-law, that his doting mother’s love suffocates him, and that he can’t talk to his temperamental, dominating father. Brick has ample grounds for misery whether he prefers sex with men or not.
Brick’s problems are mirrored by the drama’s ingeniously canted structure. Act I consists mainly of Maggie talking at Brick, who actively declines to listen. In Act II, a valley of emotionally fraught quiet amid the noisy household, he and Big Daddy at last arrive at a degree of understanding. Act III (in which Big Daddy originally didn’t appear) brings the noisy family dispute back, this time focusing on Big Mama, with a coda featuring Maggie, who balances the play’s earlier mendacities with a lie that she intends to make true. We’ve come full circle with nothing resolved, except that both Brick and his father have moved a step closer to the painful truth about themselves.
Debbie Allen’s production does the sensible thing that Cat‘s previous Broadway revivals have missed: It plays the play, not the author’s reputation. No artsy poeticizing here, no ultra-subtle psychological nuancing. Jealousy, spite, cruelty, anger, hatred, resentment, and desperation stand openly as what they are. If this gives the action a crude streak, with more than a hint of melodrama, it also revitalizes a script that had begun to fade, from overuse and from being saddled with an irrelevant gentility. The parvenu field hand’s family are a blunt bunch; actors of color, seizing these extraordinary characters for the first time, understandably dive for the center of the role. The raucous result brings the story to life, letting Williams’s subtleties, and teasing moral questions, reverberate in your mind afterward rather than slow down the event onstage.
Bluntness has its limitations. Allen’s uncertain visual sense has saddled her with an eccentric set and irritatingly self-conscious, overcomplicated lighting. Lisa Arrindell Anderson’s Mae is pure melodrama, unleavened by humanity; Terrence Howard’s touchingly anguished Brick lacks the star athlete’s external flash and arrogance. But these are secondary flaws. The virtues that offset them begin with Giancarlo Esposito’s superb Gooper, inner-churning and dead-eyed, and just get better as the roles get bigger: Phylicia Rashad’s Big Mama, an avenging Fury plagued by helpless vulnerability; James Earl Jones’s Big Daddy, quietly fierce, a heartbroken bear always ready to pounce; and Anika Noni Rose’s Maggie, proof that forces of nature can now join Actors Equity. Picture a tornado smiling tenderly as it tears up the ground, and you’ll know what this Cat‘s first act is like.
Next to Cat, the thin-sliced evenings that our Off-Broadway nonprofits currently prefer look painfully malnourished. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, at Playwrights Horizons, demonstrates sadly that Sarah Ruhl isn’t even a convincing fake—just a child who’s been told how clever she is and now keeps trying to prove it. Anne Bogart’s elegantly simple production is beautifully cast and designed. But for what? Mary-Louise Parker plays a woman who has apparently reached 40 without having any human relations. When a man at a nearby restaurant table dies while his cell phone is ringing, she gloms it, using the connections made thereby to insinuate herself into his family—all stock figures as baseless as herself. Her absurdly unconvincing lies devolve into an equally unconvincing meet-cute romance, a spoof spy-movie death that’s pure TV sketch, and yet another Ruhl trip to a jerry-rigged afterlife where the rules can change as needed to supply a happy ending. Not even trying to create this baseless role, Parker buries its emptiness under a vapid comedy drawl and a hobble-gaited walk that any improv-troupe beginner could supply.
Jez Butterworth’s Parlour Song, at the Atlantic, makes a more adult effort at seriousness but gets little further, because it combines drably overworked material—unhappy marriages and suburban adultery, ho-hum—with a laborious, often pretentious approach. Butterworth’s non-hero (Chris Bauer) is a demolition expert who pointlessly accumulates antique objects; his wife (Emily Mortimer) fancies the hunky car-wash manager (Jonathan Cake) down the road; the antique objects start inexplicably disappearing. It shouldn’t take 95 minutes for a demolitionist to figure out what’s going on, and there’s no particular need for anyone else to sit through it. The actors, under Neil Pepe’s direction, do reasonably, but Parlour Song itself is just another pointlessly accumulated antique. No actual parlor songs are sung in it, by the way; replacing a few of its duller monologues with a chorus or two of “Come Into the Garden, Maud” would improve it greatly.