Review: A New Off-Broadway Production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Is a Cold Fish
Sonoya Mizuno and Matt de Rogatis star in the Tennessee Williams classic at Theatre at St. Clement's.
Here's a question the new off-Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that opened last night at Theatre at St. Clement's surely didn't intend to provoke: Does Tennessee Williams's oft-revived 1955 drama deserve to retain its classic status today?
With its themes of familial dysfunction and repressed homosexuality, as well as Williams's characteristic Southern hot-house atmosphere, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play was certainly boundary-pushing for its time. By now, though, the theater has long since advanced past its racy intimations of sexual desire, to the point where the play might come off to newer audiences as more a stylish, fascinating time capsule than anything else. These days, the play tends to be revived as showcases for star performers (most recently, a Broadway revival starring Scarlett Johansson garnered mixed notices).
The closest this new production has to a star is Sonoya Mizuno. Previously featured in films like Crazy Rich Asians and TV series like Devs and the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, she stars, in her New York acting debut, as Maggie, the sexually frustrated wife of Brick (Matt de Rogatis), an alcoholic who refuses to sleep with her in large part because he remains hung up on Skipper, a male friend — and possibly more than that — who has recently committed suicide.
Though the play's first act primarily revolves around Maggie and Brick, its second and third acts bring in the rest of Brick's family as they celebrate not only the 65th birthday of Big Daddy (Christian Jules Le Blanc), but also the negative results of his recent tests for cancer. Turns out, though, that those negative results are false, a lie that everyone else in the family knows about other than him and Big Mama (Alison Fraser). Such deceptions, though, have become so normalized in this clan that they've led Brick to his alcoholic state, at least as he explains it to Big Daddy in their long confrontation scene in Act 2 — an increasingly heated psychological two-step that eventually leads Brick to blow up all of Big Daddy's long-held illusions.
It's in the second act that this production springs to some semblance of life. As Big Daddy, Le Blanc roars onto the stage with the kind of snarling energy that could only come from a man feeling a new lease on life. But it's about an hour and 15 minutes before he appears onstage, which means audiences have had to endure Mizuno's astonishingly lifeless characterization of Maggie, the self-described "cat on a hot tin roof," up until that point. It's a role that, as Elizabeth Taylor and Jessica Lange have previously shown on film and television, demands voracious personality and imagination to find emotional variety in her endless monologuing.
But Mizuno, saddling herself with a wretched Southern accent, never once conveys any sense of the kind of loneliness, desperation, and sexual desire that would suggest why Maggie would stay with a man who doesn't really love her. In his previous NYC stage appearances, de Rogatis has demonstrated a knack for the kind of machismo shaded with vulnerability that suggests he has a great Brick in him, and he does strike some sparks with Le Blanc while they circle each other in Act 2. And yet, the cumulative effect of his performance is curiously unmoving. (Some of the supporting cast fares better, with Spencer Scott, as Brick's brother Gooper, and Tiffan Borelli as Gooper's wife, Mae, sizzling the stage with their sense of entitlement.)
Perhaps stronger direction might have improved these performances. Joe Rosario's direction, though, actively harms his actors whenever it isn't straight-up lazy. It's silly enough that Rosario's wafer-thin concept of setting Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the present day extends only to some of Xandra Smith's contemporary costuming, a supporting character with headphones around her neck, and a split-second snatch of Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A." (Matthew Imhoff's scenic design, by contrast, evinces no period at all, with only a generic-looking digital projection of a magic-hour sunset to evoke any sense of place.) His most embarrassing "expressive" touch is a reliance on cheesy synth-heavy music cues, courtesy of sound designer Ben Levine, to underscore moments of high drama, especially when Brick starts thinking about Skipper. It's as if he not only didn't trust his actors, but, considering how many lines were inaudible at the performance I attended, also couldn't be bothered to shape the performances in any way.
Perhaps this misbegotten production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is valuable in a certain sense, then. It demonstrates the necessity of a strong directorial vision to make Tennessee Williams's play work today by offering an object lesson in how it can sink without one.