Scarlett Johansson brings a fierce fighting spirit to Maggie the Cat in director Rob Ashford’s languorous Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As the wife of Brick (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s Benjamin Walker), a closeted former football star who’s taken to bourbon since the death of his buddy Skipper, Johansson shows a winning determination — to lure back her husband, to defend their share of his family’s fortune, to maintain a sometimes shaky Southern accent. But for a movie star with major sex-appeal, she falls surprisingly short in seductiveness. Her Cat flashes her claws, but doesn’t purr.
Of course, it may be hard to seduce anyone in set designer Christopher Oram’s expansive, cagelike set of the cavernous Richard Rodgers Theatre, which tends to swallow some of the cast’s quieter lines (particularly during the intrusively loud offstage thunderstorm of Act 3). That’s a shame, since Ciarán Hinds and Debra Monk deliver interesting, subdued performances as Brick’s larger-than-life parents; even Emily Bergl’s Mae, Brick’s pushy, pregnant sister-in-law, is persuasively rounded here.
Cat has always been a problematic play in the Williams canon. The first act is dominated by Maggie and her long, almost hectoring monologue toward her husband; the second, by Big Daddy and his big confrontation with Brick; and the third, well, is a muddled free-for-all that Williams tweaked and rewrote several times even after director Elia Kazan’s original 1955 Broadway production. In every version of the script, there’s a cipher at the center — the passive and increasingly intoxicated Brick — that Walker, despite some valiant efforts, never manages to overcome. His is the first Brick I’ve seen who makes a strong case that Skipper’s love remained unrequited and Brick’s own homosexual feelings never truly stirred until after his buddy’s death. It’s a bold interpretation, but it’s undercut by Walker’s apparent lack of chemistry with Johansson’s Maggie (with whom he once was ”wonderful at love-making,” in her words).
Ashford tilts his cast toward an admirable naturalism, avoiding the sitcommy approach that some productions take to a play stocked with some decidedly broad characters. For a Tony-winning choreographer, though, he blocks scenes in a somewhat awkward way — actors can seem like Roombas wandering around the too-big set, or talking about out-of-doors occurrences when they’re far from the upstage windows. (And given the set’s spaciousness, where exactly is the sofa that Brick supposedly sleeps on to avoid sharing a bed with Maggie?)
Like Brick, who gulps liquor until he hears ”that little click in my head that makes me peaceful,” this production tosses back many an intoxicating individual moment without ever quite clicking. B
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787)