When it comes to Tennessee Williams’ steamy
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, don’t count on there ever being a definitive script. The forever-tinkering playwright regularly fiddled around with his coruscating blast at family lies, most famously for a 1974 revival to which he reintroduced previously deleted obscenities and jiggled the denouement.
It’s primarily this script that director Debbie Allen is using for her authoritative, all-African-American production of the play, now at the Broadhurst, with a stellar cast led by Terrence Howard (in his stage debut) and Tony Award winners James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, and Anika Noni Rose — who ends up taking the fourth-from-last curtain call even though she’s playing the title role and proves she can be a “dreamgirl” in a non-musical part.
While the superb Southern-Gothic dramatist never settled on the most satisfying curtain resolution to the connubial warfare between the frustrated, childless Maggie the Cat (Rose) and her husband, the self-loathing, alcoholic ex-jock Brick Pollitt (Howard), that doesn’t means Williams didn’t pull one helluva play from his fervid imagination. If Cat is a work markedly lacking the poetry of The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire, it nevertheless packs its own wallop and includes its own throbbing bout with the demands of desire — whether in the too-often-empty marital bed or at the much-visited wet bar. Moreover, Williams created a handful of characters who beg actors to chew the scenery until every wall and upholstered chair is incised with toothmarks.
Williams’ first act is a virtual monologue, during which Maggie shows she has plenty of life in her by trying every wile in her commodious bag to get the sexually unresponsive Brick back into craving her company again. Alone on a stage — set up more awkwardly than necessary by Ray Klausen — Rose does her cajoling while stretching cat-like wherever she lights and in whatever state of dress she happens to be. Maggie’s clad in a slip most of the time, although costumer Jane Greenwood manages to also get her into torso-revealing skivvies.
Whether Maggie is trying vainly to seduce Brick or whether she’s swatting the obstreperous “no-neck” monster children visiting the family plantation with Brick’s older brother Gooper (Giancarlo Esposito, being commendably lubricious) and wife Mae (Lisa Arrindell Anderson, fawning and scheming beautifully), Rose rules the stage just as Maggie’s throne-like bed commands an upstage pride-of-place position. And she gets every laugh Williams has generously written for Maggie.
Act one is less kind to Howard, whose bare back is first seen through a carefully lighted (by William H. Grant III) upstage scrim as the action gets underway. When he does arrive onstage in a plaster cast acquired after Brick’s hurdle-jumping accident, he does so inauspiciously. (The underwhelming entrance is one of Allen’s few missteps.) Moreover, he doesn’t fully inhabit Brick’s repressed rage at Maggie’s behavior. But Howard leaps effectively from seeming merely out of sorts to full fury and frustration in the second act as he and Big Daddy (Jones) lock horns over the memory of Brick’s late pal Skipper, who may also have been a homosexual partner back in their football-playing days.
Working at the height of his considerable powers, Jones throws himself into his role as another of those Williams’ bullies with a clear eye to the reality of an unforgiving world. Although some purists will miss the not-to-be-quoted-here elephant joke that sealed Big Daddy’s position as a great theater vulgarian, Jones makes certain that none of Big Daddy’s bombast is minimized. As Big Mama, Rashad cowers under Big Daddy’s many insults — and the audience gasps accordingly — but she also infuses the character with more than usual raucous appeal. (It must be a special treat for sisters Allen and Rashad to share this obvious success.)
As for the all-African-American casting, the only pertinent comment is that it turns out to be an incidental factor in this powerful revival of Williams’ hot attack on the greed and mendacity affecting too many family units every day and everywhere.