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A CurtainUp Review
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

There's nothing more powerful than the odor of mendacity —-Big Daddy
Ashley Judd & Jason Patric
Ashley Judd & Jason Patric
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Being of a certain age does have its advantages-- especially if you love good theater. It means that you had a chance to see a much revived play like Tennessee Williams' Cat On a Hot Tin Roof when it opened on Broadway, when Ben Gazarra, currently doing a solo stint as Yogi Berra (review) played the alcoholic Brick, Barbara Bel Geddes played Maggie the Cat and Burl Ives was Big Daddy. Thanks to the movies, anybody can still see the film versions in which Ives reprised his Broadway role, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman played the unhappy couple and Judith Anderson's Big Mama was a fascinating example of against-type casting.

The thing about Williams' Pulitzer Prize drama about a dysfunctional family coming face to face with its heretofore hidden deception and hypocrisy is that whether you see it for the first time or the umteenth time, its rich, poetic language is fresh every time you hear it. As for the play itself, the sexual ambiguity of the athlete turned alcoholic dropout from life is no longer shocking to the point of eliminating it as the film did. But there's nothing dated about mourning for irretrievable youthful glories and friendships, the dysfunction that imperils marriages and the jousting for position, property and love that skewer illusions about happy families. While Williams is our poet of the theater and not a political writer, Brick and Big Daddy's disgust with mendacity somehow more than ever before resonates beyond its familial setting.

Ned Beatty
Ned Beatty
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The movie and colorful character names like Big Daddy that have crept into the lexicon of commonly used allusions give Cat the sort of exposure that gives at least a faint familiarity to Williams' explosive birthday party for a Lear-like Mississippi plantation owner. But even if you know the outcome of the double celebration (Big Daddy's 65th birthday and news that fears about his having cancer are unfounded), the play and Williams' cast of characters still make for a solidly satisfying evening. Though the recently opened Broadway revival has a rather cool cat on its hot tin roof, the actors do not fail the play -- and in the case of Ned Beatty's Big Daddy and Margo Martindale's Big Mama, they add extraordinary power and new nuances.

Ashley Judd's Maggie the Cat may be more fidgety and cool than fiercely hungry for her husband's body and her share of the family fortune, but she is ravishing to look at. She also handles the daunting near-monologue of the first act well enough to make us understand her frustration and motivations.

Jason Patric's Brick is also extremely good to look at, with his strong physique tantalizingly exposed by unbuttoned pajama tops and blue eyes reminiscent of a young Paul Newman (though the voice and accent more often seem to be channeling Marlon Brando). During the first act his agonizing emotional pain doesn't quite penetrate the almost monosyllabic and mostly crutch-wielding punctuation marks for Maggie's non-stop complaints about the "no-neck" offspring of her fertile in-laws and pleas for his love and participation in Big Daddy's birthday party. However, during the middle and best act, Patric flexes his acting muscles and rises to the challenge posed by his confrontation with Ned Beatty's powerfully portrayed Big Daddy. In this version of the play first used in 1974 (there were three), the allusions to the homosexual aspect of Brick's friendship with the beloved friend who killed himself add to the intensity of the father and son confrontation. (The movie version scuttled the homosexual references and had Big Daddy focus on Brick's being crippled by clinging to past glories, challenging him to live now with "Youre a 30-year-old kid--soon you'll be a 50-year-old kid.")

Beatty, the only cast member who was also in the London version of this production (see link below), is not so much big physically, as he is big on pride in owning "twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile." and a renewed zest for life now that the Grim Reaper has retreated long enough for him to "cut loose" from Big Mama and "have me a ball!" When his reprieve from life turns out to be the result of the "mendacity" that prevails in the Platt family, his rage is just as big.

While Big Daddy cruelly diminishes the fluttery wife he has endured and bedded for over thirty years during that searing second act, Margo Martindale enriches and enlarges the role of Big Mama. It's like sitting in on a master class in acting to watching the emotions flickering over her face and the desperately held smile when he almost hits her with his birthday cake in a gesture of disdain bordering on hatred.

Michael Mastro and Amy Hohn ably capture the venality of the parents of the five toy-gun tooting "no-neck monsters " -- with Mastro almost winning our sympathy as a son whose resentment and greed was nurtured by a lifetime of resentment over his parents' favoring his sports hero kid brother.

Anthony Page's direction has the same crisp pace Lizzie Loveridge praised in the London production to Broadway's Music Box. He's changed costume designers (Jane Greenwood enhancing Maggie and Brick's film star good looks and Big Mama's fluttery plumpness) but retained Maria Bjorkson's pale, high-ceilinged bedroom set. While the the prominence of the under-used four poster bed and over-used bar supports Maggie and Brick's marital problems, the glimpse of wisteria on the balcony to which Brick regularly retreats fails to evoke the lush density of a Southern plantation. Still, if Tennessee Williams could re-visit his Pollitt family with us, I think he would be pleased.

For a review of Anthony Page's London production go here.
For our Tennessee Williams backgrounder go here

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Anthony Page
Cast: Ashley Judd (Maggie), Jason Patric (Brick), Amy Hohn (Mae), Michael Mastro (Gooper), Margo Martindale (Big Mama) and Ned Beatty (Big Daddy).
Set Design: Maria Bjornson;
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Sound Design: Christopher Cronin
Original Music: Neil McArthur
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with 2 intermissions
Music Box, 239 W. 45 St
From 10/09/03 to 3/22/04; opening 11/02/03
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM
$85 & $75, Wed Mat $75 & $65
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/06 performance

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