By Stuart Miller . . .
Tennessee Williams wrote character plays packed to the brim with lyricism and melodrama that, when done right, capture inalienable truths of the everyday life of the human condition. When productions misfire, however, they show their age and can easily slide into caricature or simply become a slog.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the most frequently revived plays on Broadway, with six runs in total and three in this century alone. So, for the Williams’ estate to grant permission for the first ever off-Broadway run, you might think there’d be a compelling cast or a bold new vision. Sadly, the Ruth Stage production at the Theatre at St. Clements may remind you of the play’s potential . . . but it never fulfills it—miscast and misdirected, the draggy production reeks of actorly moments and artifice, rarely connecting with an emotional truth.
The production, which is supposedly moved into the present, had a run last summer—that version included cell phones, but this has few indications of modern life to justify the shift, and the talk of a touring pro football team makes no sense now when the NFL so thoroughly dominates America’s sports landscape. There are other bad decisions from director Joe Rosario—the sound design of the fireworks, and later the rain, is frequently intrusive—but a stellar cast could have overcome those problems and some of the plays’ structural flaws. This cast, however, falls off the roof and doesn’t land on its feet.
Matt de Rogatis, who is also a producer, returns as Brick—he starts off onstage in a gratuitous shower scene, then spends the first act drinking himself numb as Maggie the Cat (“Cobra Kai’s” Courtney Henggeler, new to the production) prowls around trying to spark Brick back to life before elder brother Gooper (Adam Dodway) and his fertile wife Mae (Christine Copley) manage to lay claim to Big Daddy’s estate.
The opening act, dominated by Maggie’s cajoling, seducing, wheedling and pushing, is one of the most famous in theater in the 20th century, although much of that is because of the 1958 film. Comparisons to close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman—or even to Broadway Maggies like Kathleen Turner or Scarlett Johansson—are inherently unfair, but this production never achieves that click that makes the scene come alive.
Henggeler, who redeems herself in the rest of the play when she is more reactive, rushes through and swallows too many of her lines here, failing to land the laughs or generate any legitimate passion. She isn’t helped by de Rogatis, who continues to show off his body, fails to communicate Brick’s feelings for Maggie, veering instead from blankness to violent flailing. (The leading man has spoken proudly in interviews about all the falls he takes.)
The play could have been saved with a mesmerizing Big Daddy, who takes over in the second act. But Frederick Weller is neither big enough (size or personality wise) or patriarchal enough to make you believe him for a second. For starters, he is dressed not like a Southern plantation owner but like an actor about to go out for a chic dinner in Tribeca. He is never intimidating or authoritative, instead doing weird voices when Big Daddy is trying to belittle or scold that are as ill-advised as his outfit. Brick really has no reason to listen to him; in fact, drinking during Weller’s version of Big Daddy’s stem-winder seems to be the smart move.
Weller at least is making choices. The same can’t be said for Dodway and Copley, who are blandly inept, with erratic accents. And the fact that Weller is 56 and looks fantastic makes it difficult to imagine him as a cancer-riddled 65-year-old—he barely looks old enough to be de Rogatis’ dad, a problem compounded by the fact that Dodway, whose character is eight years older than Brick, looks younger than de Rogatis. None of them seem particularly Southern (Henggeler, to her credit, captures that flavor.)
The one bright spot is Alison Fraser, who is entertaining and convincing as Big Mama. She is a bit over the top in her accent, her gestures and her performance, but that, of course, is the way Williams wrote her. Fraser finds the truth in Big Mama’s relentless denial of it.
If you’ve never seen Cat, the movie is a tricky place to start because Williams’ writing about repressed homosexuality was bowdlerized by Hollywood, but this production is just too mediocre throughout to do the play justice. On the bright side, the outsized role of Maggie is catnip for leading ladies and sooner or later, she and the show will slink back into town.
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Through March 31 at the Theatre at St. Clements (423 W. 46th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). Two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. www.ruthstage.org
Cover Photo: Matt de Rogartis (Photo by Max Bieber)