Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

  • Date:
    March 1, 2008
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    Maggie the Cat, the unfulfilled wife in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," poses in her satin slip, with back arched, ready to pounce on Brick, her unwilling husband. Slithering around their huge bedroom, with its huge unused bed, fixing her stockings, changing her dress, Maggie seeks to reclaim the love she never had in the first place. Brick answers by clinking the ice in his glass, and waiting for the "click" that signals he�s finally too drunk to care.

    Interesting name, Brick. Sounds so solid, yet this character is broken, literally and metaphorically. Nursing a broken leg, Brick stumbles around with his two crutches, one of metal, the other of whiskey, a man of crumbling clay at best. The heir to his father�s fortune, this oppositional son is doing battle with the ugly truths that keep spilling out right before his eyes: a wife who poisoned their marriage by cheating with his best friend; a dead best friend who loved him a bit too much -- and was loved in return; and a dying father, all reasons why a man might grab a bottle for comfort. But Brick�s worst enemy is Brick..

    Big Daddy says the enemy is "mendacity," the word he roars loudly over and over again, disgusted with the habitual lying by his family who all pretend to care about each other, but in reality would more likely scratch each other's eyes out. Maggie isn't the only cat here.

    Mendacity, however, is the one thing this production isn't guilty of. Never has the truth of the Pollitt family been so clearly delineated. The all-black cast offers new interpretations of characters we thought we knew, forcing us to reexamine our judgments of Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy. Emotions that were always subtext are now brought into sharp focus with an extra 25 minutes of script never performed before on Broadway, helping us understand Brick and his family's demons, not to mention playwright Tennessee Williams's as well.

    This "Cat" is an outstanding revival of a well-worn script, one the Williams' estate assumed had its definitive performance on film with Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives, and Paul Newman. In fact, the estate was loath to give the show's producers the performance rights since the powers that make those decisions believed there was nothing left to be said. How wrong they were.

    James Earl Jones, in a "Playbill" interview, said that he always wanted to play Big Daddy, and he makes it seem as if the role were written with him in mind. His supersized body, thunderous voice, and acting brilliance makes one wonder why he never played the part before. Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama is the perfect mate. At her most distraught, she still commands the family and the stage.

    Terence Howard makes the transition from movies to the stage effortlessly, and yes, he has Paul Newman eyes even if they're not blue. He gives Brick a vulnerability that is shared by his match, Anika Noni Rose, whose star-power was evidenced in "Caroline, or Change." She infuses Maggie with a sensuality and softness that adds complexity to the character who cannot find a way to touch her husband, and makes us want to champion her cause, even as we learn the root of it all.

    This is the "fifth life" on Broadway for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, having had its first production in 1955. Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, and Burl Ives were the stars then, but the truncated script merely hinted at Brick's latent homosexuality. Subsequent productions, which were also Bowdlerized, never achieved the memorability of the film, especially the awful one in 2003 with Ashley Judd, Jason Patric, and Ned Beatty.

    But "five," apparently, is the charm. "Cat" was written by a white man, and expected to be performed by white actors, yet this cast of color has proven without equivocation that the story transcends traditional color lines. The extraordinary performances of the stellar cast, and the insightful direction of Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad's baby sister, are responsible for this success. But it also helps that, given the current political scene, the time was right for breaking new ground with a treasured American classic.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus

    What the press had to say.....

    "Flabby revival" & "The production acquires a haze of sentimentality that makes it soft when it should be sharp."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "Allen's all-black cast works fine as a concept, but her nearly three-hour production is hit-and-miss. It doesn't deepen Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner, which is filled with sex, lies and Delta depravity. Those ingredients make for a show that can bubble over and boil. This one mostly just simmers."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "I've seen smoother stagings of the play, but this one is well worth seeing. It has satisfying power and little or any "mendacity."
    Clive Barnes
    New York Post

    "The thunderstorm and fireworks punctuating the later scenes of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" are cheesy effects, but the bold acting that lights up a new production of Tennessee Williams' classic is the real, electrifying thing."
    Michael Sommers

    "Phylicia Rashad's Big Mama has some undeniably funny moments, and a few poignant ones; but it's another case of a normally astute, elegant actress adding too much sauce to an already spicy part. Lisa Arrindell Anderson is even more histrionic as Maggie's conniving, annoying sister-in-law."
    Elysa Gardner
    USA Today

    "A shimmering ensemble that honors America's great poet of bruised humanity."
    Linda Winer

    "Lopsided and often wrongheaded" & "Silence about a thing just magnifies it," Maggie pleads as she tries to pry the unpleasant truth from Brick. And magnifying a thing, as Ms. Allen does to woefully reductive effect, can mute its impact to the point of silence."
    Eric Grode
    New York Sun

    "The play is as rich in subtext as in its thrillingly confrontational text, which the director, Debbie Allen -- also an actress, dancer and choreographer -- brings to highly kinetic life in spite of some serious errors."
    John Simon

    "This is a distinctly disheveled production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" that will do nothing to advance the reputation of Tennessee Williams. But it will be a treat to fans of Jones and Rashad, who can enjoy their over-the-top performances."
    Jacques le Sourd
    Journal News

    "This "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," directed by Debbie Allen, may be short on drama and conflict and not have a center, but it does connect to the audience's funny bone. At times it seems like one of those sitcoms about a family of warring oddballs, which I don't think was the playwright's intention."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "The mournful sounds of a saxophone player wail through the opening and closing moments of the all-black Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. These jazzy if unnecessary interludes are symbolic of the often clunky excesses found throughout this uneven production of the Williams classic. Subtle, it's not."
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "Certainly, Tennessee Williams' classic play contains its share of humor, as do many of his works. But the current revival directed by Debbie Allen resembles nothing so much as a raucous family sitcom."
    Frank Scheck
    The Hollywood Reporter

    "While Debbie Allen's inexperience as a director shows in pedestrian physical staging with a tendency toward heavy-handedness, she lucks out where it most matters -- with her powerhouse cast. "
    David Rooney