Don’t be lulled by Scarlett Johansson’s steamy come-hither look on the posters for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Her Maggie the Cat is more tigress than the kitty so often portrayed in this role.
This gutsy production pairs the sultry star with the equally sizzling Benjamin Walker (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) as her dissolute, disinterested husband Brick in Rob Ashford’s Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s 1955 Pulitzer winner.
Ashford approaches the melodrama more literally than most. Johansson spends much of Act I in a clingy slip (and, sorry, an unflattering wig). The set features high diaphanous curtains and a slatted ceiling that filter the Southern sunlight down to a pale shimmer off silk bed linens and sensuous gowns. (The set design is by Christopher Oram, the costumes by Julie Weiss and the lighting by Neil Austin.)
We’re in the boudoir of a mansion in the middle of the Pollitt cotton plantation “twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile!” as Big Daddy, a vulgar, outsize prince, puts it.
There’s a war going on in this bedroom, with nothing less than those 28,000 acres at stake. Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds) wants to leave it all to Brick. But Brick’s brother, Gooper, and his fertile wife Mae are providing him with a steady stream of heirs, while Brick and Maggie remain childless.
Big Daddy also sees Brick sliding into alcoholism. He’s powerless to stop it. He doesn’t know what ruined this picture- perfect union.
The big reveal in “Cat” isn’t Maggie’s betrayal of Brick with his best friend. It’s what happened between the two men as a consequence of that betrayal, something only Big Daddy is, in the end, cunning enough to pull out of his son.
Still, Maggie is the engine powering the play. Johansson showed a vulnerable, open side in her Tony-winning performance three years ago as Catherine in “A View From the Bridge.” Here she’s a different creature: tough, scrappy, poised and devoted to keeping the estate out of the hands of Gooper, Mae and their “five no-neck monsters.” That can’t happen until she gets Brick back in their bed.
A Southern blue-blood raised dirt poor, Maggie early on learned to depend not only on her looks, but on a steely determination to escape the poverty of her youth.
Walker, hobbling on the foot he messed up during a pre-dawn attempt at jumping hurdles on the high school track where he once was a star, is up to the battle. He’s inured to Maggie’s chatter and tricks as he guzzles bourbon waiting for the “click” that will render him placid, not to say comatose.
Ashford lets the show get a little fussy, what with the singing tykes and the ever-primping Mae (a rather one-note Emily Bergl). But Hinds is admirably coarse and Debra Monk is touching as the much maligned Big Mama. Michael Park is snakelike as the son whose very competence leaves his dying father cold.
Unsurprisingly for Ashford, a musical comedy specialist, the show unfolds like a jagged waltz gone haywire. Maggie’s not the only one recoiling from the heat of the sun on that hot tin roof.
Through March 30 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Information: +1-800-982-2787; http://www.ticketmaster.com. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on books.
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at email@example.com.
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