Many people have worked very hard on the new production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Rodgers Theatre), and I feel extremely sad for them, since all their efforts have added up to nothing but a confused, noisy mess, which has less to do with Williams’s play than any production of Cat I’ve ever seen. I feel saddest of all for Scarlett Johansson, who made a powerful and lasting impression a few years ago as Catherine in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, and who still, I think, could prove effective as Maggie, Cat‘s heroine, if somebody would direct her in an actual production of the work.
That this is no such production, and that Rob Ashford is no suitable director, is evident from the start: The show opens with a gigantic crashing chord that suggests a flying saucer may have landed on the roof of “Big Daddy” Pollitt’s mansion in the Mississippi Delta. You expect space aliens to appear, but the only arrival is Johansson’s Maggie, dashing upstairs to change her dress, stained at dinner when one of her brother-in-law’s little “no-neck monsters” threw a buttered biscuit at her. She shouts this news to her husband, Brick (Benjamin Walker), offstage in the shower, and she mostly goes on shouting for the rest of the evening, as does everyone else.
You can’t blame them. The Rodgers, mostly used for musicals, makes an inhospitably large home for a play of Cat‘s intimacy, and the rest of Adam Cork’s sound design, presumably at Ashford’s prompting, matches that opening crash in volume. When a scene ends with offstage field hands serenading Big Daddy on his birthday, their amplified voices swell till you wonder if he has hired the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to pick his cotton. The final scene’s thunderstorm breaks with an apocalyptic roar that leaves not one line of dialogue fully audible; skilled artists like Debra Monk (Big Mama) have to scream their lungs out to make themselves heard.
This deplorable situation obviously stems from Ashford’s inability to grasp the most basic sense of the text. Johansson’s Maggie even shouts while on the phone with Brick’s deaf aunt, explaining immediately afterward that she has learned never to shout when talking to the deaf. She shouts even while pointing out to Brick that their bedroom walls are thin, and that his malicious brother, Gooper (Michael Park), and sister-in-law, Mae (Emily Bergl), have been eavesdropping on them.
Though conducted at top volume, this Cat provides dishearteningly little worth eavesdropping on. Intent on establishing Walker’s Brick as a self-punishing, wounded soul, unremittingly bullied by his hard-edged, increasingly desperate Maggie, Ashford overlooks one of the play’s central components. If these two people feel no attraction for each other, the story contains no tension. Brick is a man who has caused his best friend’s suicide, partly out of fear that he himself might be gay; he blames his wife for having precipitated the event. But their own sexual relations, the text makes clear, have never been a problem; Brick’s reasons for finding Maggie repugnant are moral and psychological, not physical—though his furious denial when Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds) confronts him on the point may suggest the opposite. His relationship to his father, too, is uncomfortable, although both his parents openly prefer him to his respectable, responsible elder brother.
The story follows taciturn Brick, who, while trying vainly to drink himself into a stupor, has to confront, in turn, his wife, his father, and his mother. As narrative, it has a somber, inward, even philosophic quality, bookended as it is by Brick’s self-destruction and his father’s impending death. The rowdy family conflicts, with the celebration of Big Daddy’s birthday masking the struggle to inherit his wealth, provide peripheral color and variety. Preoccupied with these, Ashford barely notices the emotional transactions at the drama’s center. On Christopher Oram’s set, which gives Brick and Maggie’s bedroom the loftiness of a hotel’s grand ballroom, family members and servants dash incessantly to and fro, as if in a Feydeau farce. Granted no quietude, the actors strain. Walker pulls and pushes at his role as if it were a stuck door; Hinds, miscast in his, puts strenuous effort into underscoring Big Daddy’s coarseness. Only Monk strikes a credibly human—and Southern—note. The rest is noise.