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A CurtainUp Review
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

What do you know about this mendacity thing?. . .I could write a book on it and still not cover the subject anywhere near enough! —Think of all the lies I got to put up with!— Pretenses! Ain't that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don't think or feel of have any idea of? Having for instance to act like I care for Big Mama!— I haven't been able to stand the sight, sound, or smell of that woman for forty years now. . .Pretend to love that son of a bitch of a Gooper and his wife Mae and those five same screechers out there like parrots in a jungle. . .You and being a success as a planter is all I ever had any real devotion to in my whole life!— Big Daddy's mendacity rant includes disgust with Church and business and social clubs he's belonged to but cared little about.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Phylicia Rashad & James Earl Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When Tennessee Williams's dysfunctional family drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof first played on Broadway in 1955 (with Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, Burl Ives as Big Daddy, Mildred Dunnock as Big Mama and Ben Gazzara as Brick) it was hard to imagine a black man getting control of a 28,000 acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta worth millions of dollars. The only African-Americans on stage in this or subsequent revivals or in the film (with Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and, Ives again) were the servants.

But here we are, a half century plus a few years later, with Big Daddy played by James Earl Jones, and the entire clan celebrating his birthday a starry group of African-American actors. To add to the buzz created by this deep south melodrama's all black casting, another somewhat different star was invited to the opening, — also in a role still more dream than a real possibility in 1955: Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barak Obama.

Though there aren't too many playwrights around to write great plays about the African-American experience, we do have enough talented African-American actors —quite a few with well-deserved star power— who have proved and continue to prove that the emotions in a well written play with strong characters, especially a juicy family drama, are not defined by skin color. And with enough wealthy black families in all parts of the country, it's no longer a credibility stretch fo have a black plantation owning clan.

Nevertheless, since it was necessary to obtain permission from the Williams estate to do a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with African-American actors, the publicity surrounding the just opened revival's cast has created a buzz which is actually a good thing, given the play's age and familiarity through frequent revivals and the Elizabeth Taylor-Paul Newman film.

While Cat certainly showcases Williams' gift for writing high drama and investing it with humor and poetry and Big Daddy remains an unforgettable character, a new production needs something newworthy to provide that buzz element needed to make this play with its dated homosexual subtext sizzle once again —especially in a season when we have an exciting new epic family drama like August: Osage County. It doesn't hurt to have this cast headed by established multi-media actors like Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones, and feature a Maggie and Brick (Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard) well known to movie goers . To add to the buzz factor, there's the restoration of some of the strong language Elia Kazan persuaded Williams to eliminate from the original production.

So how successful is this latest Pollitt family in portraying the greed and need for approval that drives people who ought to be bonded by love and familial ties to abuse and disparage one another? If everyone was on a par with James Earl Jones, I'd say this is the most stirring Cat I've ever seen. Jones is magnificent. He IS Big Daddy. And as Big Daddy is the power base for the Pollitt empire, so Jones is the most powerful figure on stage. As you watch him try every which way to connect with the son he loves, you see the heart beating beneath the bossy bluster. Even though most people in the audience will know or guess the truth about his "spastic colon," Jones still stuns you with the way he reveals his raw shock.

With the play structured so that there's quite a wait for Big Daddy to enter the picture, the next big question is how are Maggie and Brick, Big Daddy's daughter-in-law and favorite son? After all, it's in their bedroom that the entire play unfolds and it's a forty-five minute monologue by Maggie that establishes the problems that will turn Big Daddy's sixty-fifth birthday party into an emotional hurricane.

You certainly couldn't want for a sexier looking Maggie than Anika Noni Rose or a Brick who better fits the jock image of Brick than Terrence Howard. Rose has mastered her difficult and lengthy monologue with its rants about the no-necked monsters her fertile sister-in-law Mae (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) shamelessly uses to curry favor with Big Daddy and point a finger at Maggie and Brick's barren marriage. Though she radiates enormous energy, she doesn't fully project the swamp of feelings — part frustration and loneliness, part determined optimism— that make that four-poster bed a taut battlefield of wills. For all the sexy preening the interplay with Brick isn't all that sensuous and somewhat stagey.

Brick's role in that first act is basically reactive and Terrence Howard has opted to play up the indifference that's the end product of his anger, pain and despair. Thus he maintains an almost blank facial expression with his inner turmoil evident only by the constant trips to the liquor cabinet (you'd have a hard time trying to keep a count of his drink refills) and the use of the crutch he needs since breaking his ankle. His voice is on the thin side which may be attributed to his not being accustomed to live theater and the voice-draining demands of eight performances a week and, even more likely at the performance I saw, the aftermath of a bout with the flu, making this a temporary problem. At any rate, during the second and best act's Brick-Big Daddy confrontation Howard relinquishes his indifference and rises to the demands of the scene. His young daughter Heaven Howard is getting an earlier start on testing the theatrical waters as one of t adorably odious "no-neck monsters."

While this production is above all a triumph for Jones, Phylicia Rashad is a touching Big Mama, especially when she tries desperately to hold on to her smile when her husband's disgust for her explodes and he almost hits her with his birthday cake. As the prolific heir producers, Mae and Gooper, Lisa Arrindell Anderson is appropriately uptight looking but she brings little shading to this colorful character. Giancarlo Esposito fares much better as Gooper. He initially seems interchangeable with Lou Myers' Reverend Tooker and Count Stovall's Dr. Baugh but unlike his stage spouse, he does get beneath the surface obnoxiousness of the achieving but under-appreciated Gooper.

The staging of this family drama is something of a family affair since director Debbie Allen is Phylicia Rashad's sister. Best known as an actress and choreographer, Allen's staging is okay but not especially original. Ray Klausen's split-level set seems furnished to illustrate Big Daddy's reflections on Big Mama's buying spree during their Cook's Tour trip to Europe which he sums up as "nothing but a great big auction. The old-fashioned four-poster on the upper level, a rattan table and Art Deco bar in the lower area look like a random mix of those haphazrdly bought stuff that's actually in use rather than stored away.

The addition of a soulful saxophone prologue (Gerald Hayes) for each act is a nice touch. The re-introduction of the four letter words adds a muscular touch to the enduring poetic rhythm of Tennessee Williams's language. And of course, there's a Big Daddy to match, if not surpass, all who've inhabited this role.

Links to Reviews of Other Productions of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof:
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof -DC
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof-Broadway 2004
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof -London
For Our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder go here

Written by Tennessee Williams
directed by Debbie Allen
Cast: Lisa Arrindell Anderson (Mae), Giancarlo Esposito Terrence Howard (Gooper), Lou Myers (Reverend Tooker), Anika Noni Rose (Maggie), James Earl Jones (Big Daddy), Phylicia Rashad (Big Mama), Count Stovall (Dr. Baugh); Marja Harmon (Sookey), Heaven Howard (Dixie), Marissa Chisholm (Trixie), Clark Jackson (Lacey), Bethany Butler and Robert Christopher Riley (Household Staff), Saxophone Player (Gerald Hayes). Sets: Ray Klausen
Lighting: William Grant III
Costumes: Jane Greenwood
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with 2 intermissions
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street 212-239-6200
From 2/12/08; opening 3/06/08.; closing 6/15/08
Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm.
Tickets, $61.50 - $96.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 2nd press preview

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