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Mary Stuart Masterson and Jeremy Davidson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Seeing Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in two separate productions in two different cities over the space of a few months, I was struck by the fact that this undeniably brilliant play is deeply flawed. For some reason, although the Kennedy Center's current staging is at least as good as the recent Broadway revival, the script's lapses are all the more evident here.

This famous tale of Maggie "the Cat," her latent homosexual husband Brick, and the wildly dysfunctional Southern clan of which they are members is beloved of actors because of its juicy roles  -- but the play is too long by at least half an hour, much of its dialogue is repetitious, and its now-iconic characters sometimes behave in ways that make no sense whatsoever. For example: In the second of the play's three acts, the misinformation that family patriarch "Big Daddy" isn't dying of cancer but is only suffering from a spastic colon is repeated what seems like two dozen times. Did audiences of the 1950s have shorter attention spans that we have today? I doubt it. As Eugene O'Neill does at his worst, Williams makes most of his points multiple times in Cat. (At the start of Act III, Mary Stuart Masterson as Maggie delivered a line that I didn't catch, but I needn't have worried; damned if she didn't say the exact same line again two minutes later!)

As for outlandish character behavior that's great fun to watch but bears little resemblance to the ways in which real human beings interact, look to Big Daddy. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is famous for the long, intense confrontation scene between this rich, old Mississippi redneck and his son Brick; they talk about "mendacity" and Big Daddy openly expresses his loathing for his wife, Big Mama, in the vilest terms imaginable. To be sure, the sequence has its gripping moments, but come now: Is it believable that Big Daddy would say such things to Brick about his mother? For that matter, why should his utter contempt for Big Mama and for his son and daughter-in-law, Gooper and Mae, suddenly come bellowing out into the open on this particular evening? Big Mama seems shocked by the old man's hateful insults when he flings them at her directly, but is Big Daddy the sort of person who would have bottled up his feelings for years? As written by Williams, is he the reticent, discrete type? Of course not.

There's another strange thing about Cat that no one ever seems to notice. On the one hand, setting the entire action of the play in Maggie and Brick's bedroom makes sense because whether or not he's going to resume sleeping with her is major plot point; on the other hand, it's rather silly for the other characters to spend so much time in the room. And at least two of the play's minor roles, the doctor and the preacher, seem unnecessary; they're just two more figures that eventually turn up in the bedroom, which soon begins to resemble Penn Station on late Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend.

It does not seem that the play's problems have been exacerbated in any way by director Mark Lamos and his Kennedy Center cast, so I'm not sure whey they seem so blatant here. The enormously talented Mary Stuart Masterson does a creditable job as Maggie; she's sexy and smart even if she doesn't fully communicate the character's desperation over her foundering marriage and the prospect of losing her husband's inheritance. Jeremy Davidson, blessed with the godlike physique that the role of Brick requires, clearly communicates the deep hurt that lies beneath the character's alcohol-besotted sullenness.

Jeremy Davidson and George Grizzard
in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
George Grizzard is riveting as Big Daddy and Dana Ivey is properly pathetic as Big Mama; the bar for these roles has been set almost impossibly high by such performers as Burl Ives, Fred Gwynne, Laurence Olivier, Charles Durning, Judith Anderson, Maureen Stapleton, Polly Holliday, and Margo Martindale, but Grizzard and Ivey still manage to clear it with several inches to spare. As Mae and Gooper, Emily Skinner and T. Scott Cunningham play three-dimensional characters rather than the caricatures that these two can so easily become.

John Lee Beatty, who designed an uncharacteristically problematic set for the Kennedy Center's May production of Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, is back at the top of his form with Cat's mile high windows, wooden shades, and large chandelier; placing Maggie and Brick's once-conjugal bed upstage center, rather than off to the right or left, was a wise move on Beatty's part. Howell Binkley's lighting and Jane Greenwood's costumes help to create a palpable sense of Southern heat.

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is being presented as part of the Kennedy Center's "Tennessee Williams Explored" series. Though this surely wasn't intended, the production is fascinating in showing us that the play continues to connect with audiences even though it's talky in the extreme and some of it just isn't any good. A major reason for the popularity of the Elizabeth Taylor-Paul Newman film version of Cat is its star power but I suspect that it also has to do with the fact that Taylor, Newman, Burl Ives et al. performed an edited version of the stage script. Although the screenplay cuts that censored the play's homosexual content are deplorable, those that simply tightened it and removed its redundancies are not. As the D.C. Cat crept along, I honestly found myself wishing that director Lamos had taken a blue pencil to the thing -- heretic though that thought may be.

Williams's The Glass Menagerie is due at the Kennedy Center next month with Gregory Mosher directing Sally Field as Amanda, and new stagings of that play and A Streetcar Named Desire are scheduled for Broadway within the year. These two masterpieces can stand up to endless revivals but perhaps it's time to give Maggie, Brick, et al. a rest for a decade or so. Although the genius of Tennessee Williams is evident in Cat on a Hit Tin Roof, you have to sit through a whole lot of word spinning in order to experience it.

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