Jason Patric and Ashley Judd in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jason Patric and Ashley Judd in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Imagine this: You're sitting in the Music Box, about to see Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Just before the lights go down, you glance over your shoulder and see Paul Newman sitting two rows behind you. Jason Patric will be playing Brick on stage in a few moments; Paul Newman will be playing Brick on celluloid forever. If ever there was a time we wished we were Linda Blair in The Exorcist, this was it; would that our heads could have spun around to see Newman's reactions to the play as it unfolded! (More on this later...)

Maggie the Cat and her husband, Brick, are described as beautiful people. The roles demand movie star glamour. Who wouldn't want to see a play with two eye-popping players, one dressed in a slip and the other in silk pajamas? On the other hand, who wouldn't want to hear the lyrical lines that Williams wove into this spider web of sensuality, cruelty, and mendacity done full justice? Getting the right match of breathtaking actors for this equally breathtaking play is the trick; producer Bill Kenwright and director Anthony Page almost pulled it off.

Ashley Judd as Maggie sure has the look -- sleek, sexy, beautiful. If only she could act! Judd races through her lines, missing the poetry. Too often, she seems shrewish rather than erotic. Jason Patric also has the right beefcake quality for Brick but his voice seems thin and lacking in authority. On the other hand, what's missing from his voice can be found on his face. This may not work for audience members seated at a distance from the stage but, up close, you can see that he's giving an extraordinary cinematic performance. In the first act, his eyes capture the haunted look of a man who's seeing ghosts. His second act verbal battle with Big Daddy (Ned Beatty) gives him the opportunity to shine, and he takes it, running to glory by the end of the play.

Ned Beatty isn't a big man, but he fills Big Daddy's shoes in grand style. Mean, strong, and piteously honest, his Big Daddy takes second place to the work of no other actor. The real revelation of the production, however, is Big Mama, played by Margo Martindale. She gives a performance of emotional sweep that's as grand as the Southland; her Big Mama has heart, pathos, intensity, and power. Remember her name when they're handing out the 2004 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.

The first act of this production gets by on good looks, the second act offers great acting to go along with great writing, and the third act is the culmination of the plot and the dramatic drive of the better performances. If this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has a cool Cat, there's still a great play and some wonderful players under that tin roof. Oh, yes: Paul Newman stood up at the end to give Margo Martindale a standing ovation and remained on his feet as the rest of the stars came out for their bows. Classy guy!

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Kyle MacLachlan, Aidan Gillen, and Patrick Stewartin The Caretaker(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kyle MacLachlan, Aidan Gillen, and Patrick Stewart
in The Caretaker
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Who's in Charge Here?

Harold Pinter's The Caretaker is a theatrical game of three-card monte with three characters vying for power as their relationships continually flip-flop. The problem with the current Roundabout Theatre production, directed by David Jones, is that it's not long before we can tell which character is really in charge.

As the play begins, we meet a roguish old man named Davies (Patrick Stewart), who's down on his luck and homeless, and the calm if somewhat slow-witted Aston (Kyle MacLachlan), who takes him in. Later, we're introduced to Aston's mercurial brother Mick (Aidan Gillen), who actually owns the less-than-fashionable building in which Aston lives (and which he is now sharing with Davies). At first, it seems that the well-meaning and generous Aston is morally superior to his brother, who slinks away under Aston's disapproving eyes more than once during the course of the play. Meanwhile, Davies gets the lay of the land and starts taking advantage of Aston's good nature; he also begins to play one brother against the other.

We're supposed to think that this is working, but Stewart's Davies is too much of a fool and a blowhard for us to believe that he's manipulating the other two characters. And by the time MacLachlan delivers his big speech in the middle of the play, giving the reason for his sluggish behavior, it's already become clear that the real power in the play belongs to Mick; we have seen this all along as Mick toys with Davies like a kid pulling the wings off a butterfly. Because Stewart doesn't give his character enough intelligent guile to offset Mick's cruelty, the play loses most of its suspense. That's too bad, because Gillen gives a sensational performance full of danger and surprise. MacLachlan is genuinely tender and likeably pathetic. Stewart is technically amazing in his creation of a wizened old rascal but the actor miscalculated, having built a character without teeth sharp enough to have the requisite bite.

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Jeanne MacDonald
Jeanne MacDonald
Nightlife Notes

Roll out the red carpet: Jeanne MacDonald has arrived. In her recent show at The Duplex she proved herself to be accomplished, confident, and utterly natural. Add a beautiful, warm voice, throw in thoughtful interpretive skills, and there's no doubt now that MacDonald has evolved into one of cabaret's brightest talents. She always had the voice, but now she has a winning personality to go with it.

MacDonald's patter was charming and without pretension, her musical choices buoyant and surprising. She has never been in better sync with her longtime collaborator, musical director Rick Jensen. His arrangements fit her like a stocking on a shapely leg and were often as lovely. Her rendition of "I Thought About You" (Mercer/Van Heusen) throbbed with quiet intensity, while her take on "Big Spender" (Coleman/Fields) was sexy and alive with a sense of humor. Showing yet more versatility, she knocked out "Cold, Cold Heart" (Hank Williams) with a pure country belt. Simply put, Jeanne MacDonald has fulfilled her early promise -- and then some.

Mychelle Colleary
Mychelle Colleary
Another recent show of note was Mychelle Colleary's Enter the November Nebula with Shirley Temple's Evil Twin -- and if that title doesn't grab you, Colleary's talent should. This up-and-coming jazz artist put together a smart, sassy, and entirely entertaining show that just concluded a short run at The Duplex. The title suggests that she's a little cracked; her quirky sensibility brought a fresh perspective to familiar songs and took us down new roads that led to deliciously unfamiliar tunes.

The imaginative arrangements were a collaboration between Colleary and her musicians, John Di Pinto (piano and accordion) and Ritt Henn (bass). Together, they came up with a version of "Autumn Leaves" (Mercer/Kosma) that was damned near definitive. That number opened the program and there was little or no let down in the stylish selections that followed, right through to the sharply funny finale, "Happy Whatever" (The Therapy Sisters).

John DePalma, a supple singer with an easy charm, was Colleary's guest artist throughout her three-show run. His strong voice, acting chops, and playfulness of spirit enhanced his duets with Colleary. This was too good a show to disappear so soon. Perhaps we'll see it again next November?