Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Theater Review: Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," at the Broadhurst Theatre, New York

At the beginning of this recently closed revival of Williams' classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gerald Hayes entered, blowing a mean sax. Meant to underscore the sultry if stifling atmosphere of the play, his presence inevitably also brought to mind the inescapable African-American contribution to jazz—and the question of race that provides the reason for being of this production.

Williams set his drama of desire and deceit (inflicted upon oneself as well as others) in the delta area of Mississippi, but Hayes' incidental music raised the question of whether the setting might have worked just as well across the river, either in Louisiana in general or New Orleans in particular. The playwright was certainly familiar with this milieu, as A Streetcar Named Desire demonstrates, but there's even more reason to wonder whether the slight change in locale might have made more sense for this production.

Moving the time of the play from the 1950s—when it would have been impossible to own 28,000 acres worth $80 million, as Big Daddy does here—to a later, more indeterminate period is a necessary minimum, but it's not nearly enough. More than five decades after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, it's still difficult to imagine an African-American so successful in such a racially stratified society as Mississippi. It's much easier to imagine the action happening in Louisiana, where racial mixing dating back to the Spanish and French made for less rigid class divisions.

Aside from Shakespeare productions, the first time I ever heard of color-blind casting was somewhere between 20 and 30 years ago, in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. At first, I regarded that casting decision as disastrous. O'Neill, after all, had written a quintessentially Irish-American tragedy—the name for his family's dramatic counterparts, the Tyrones, referred, after all, to Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, the most famous of the "Wild Geese" who fled Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne led to growing British Protestant control. How could an African-American director and cast understand this, as well as the nuances of Catholic guilt that run through the drama?

Over time, I came to believe that I was mistaken, and for more reasons than just that O'Neill's themes are so universal that they should not be restricted to any one group.

Color-blind casting has become the talk of Broadway this year, with Morgan Freeman (The Country Girl) and S. Epatha Merkerson (Come Back, Little Sheba) taking on roles formerly played exclusively by white actors. This particular production of Williams' classic, however, differs from them in being not so much color-blind as aggressively color-conscious. I'm not sure the producers' gambit paid off artistically.

Not that I don't wish it would. It used to be said that the most segregated hours of the American week were at Sunday religious services.

But several times over the last decade, as I spent an increasing amount of time watching theater (not just on Broadway, be it noted, but in any city or vacation spot where I saw a drama, comedy or musical), I registered a ringing inner dissent to that charge, as I became dismayed by the white, middle-to-upper-class, not-so-young audiences at performances I attended.

"Is the theater really dead?" Simon & Garfunkel asked in "The Dangling Conversations." Not yet, but it wouldn't be long the way things were trending demographically, I thought. In a society growing more and more multi-cultural with each day, Broadway was committing slow but sure suicide by sticking to fare that was alien to a large part of its audience—and, worse, by continually raising ticket prices so high that they could only be afforded on a regular basis by the affluent.

You would think, then, that I would be thrilled by a show with an audience so integrated that the only one I saw so racially well balanced in recent years was Rent. Indeed, I was thrilled that such a large contingent of black, middle-aged theatergoers turned out for the all-star cast including James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and Giancarlo Esposito. (Early in its run, African-Americans comprised 75-80% of the show's audiences, according to an estimate in this
New York Times article on producer Steven C. Byrd.)

Certainly, Rose, the least-noticed of the Dreamgirls trio (Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson grabbed the spotlight), was absolutely correct in noting, during
an interview with WNYC-FM's Leonard Lopate, that classic theater should not lie beyond the range of actors simply because of racial or ethnic issues.

With all of this said, however, I wish that Broadway aficionados, no matter what their skin color, had received a production that lived up the great promise of this stellar cast.

Let's start with the good things about the revival: This was not our parents' Cat. You know the one I mean—the 1958 film version with Burl Ives repeating his Broadway triumph as Big Daddy, with Paul Newman as alcoholic ex-football player Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie. Film censorship in those days, though, was so strong that you couldn't understand why Newman was so uninterested in Taylor, then at the height of her allure—why, in fact, he kept snapping and snarling at her. This revival follows Williams' 1974 unexpurgated stage version starring Elizabeth Ashley, in which no bones were made that sexy Maggie is so sex-starved because Brick can't admit homosexual feelings for his deceased football buddy.

A major fault of the show is that director Debbie Allen's vision contained way too much inappropriate humor. Didn't she realize that the marriage of Brick and Maggie is tragic? You'd never guess as the audience erupted in laughter when Brick threw his crutch angrily at his wife, when the lingerie-clad Maggie wrapped a thigh around a post like a stripper around a pole, or when Maggie told Brick that her doctor said there was no reason why she couldn't have children.

Judging from this production, I'd say Allen saw Maggie as the missing Southern desperate housewife. It's not an unreasonable assumption—the first name of Maggie's husband, after all, not only evokes the rock-solidity stolidity with which he played that most macho of games, football, but also the wall he builds in the way of his wife. Not inappropriately, Brick's mother, Big Mama notes, pointing at their bed, "When you have a rocky marriage, the rocks are there."

The most pleasant surprise by far here, Rashad brought tremendous dignity to the role of Big Mama. (I'm not sure why I'm so surprised—after all, late last year I caught another fine performance of hers in Lincoln Center's version of Cymbeline.) Rashad evinced a fierce love that shows why Big Mamma endures Big Daddy's worst verbal abuse. In the process, she rescued a character usually portrayed as a psychic doormat—and became the only cast member who made audiences fundamentally rethink the play.

Would that the same could be written about Terrence Howard, who was greeted by whoops from female fans when he made his entrance stepping out of the shower. But much of the time, especially in the early going, the Hustle and Flow star could barely be heard. Instead of the liquid stupefaction that Brick seeks, Howard conveyed inertness. Instead of a fire-and-ice confrontation between husband and wife, he made Rose appear to be more like a boxer pounding her fists into a pillowcase.

Hearing a snippet of her performance on Leonard Lopate's radio show, I was initially revolted at the sound of Rose's rose as Maggie. Yet in the theater, that voice sounded more and more natural to me. She brought scads of humor, wiliness, intelligence, and hopeless longing to this most vital of Williams’ heroines. Too bad she had to battle Howard’s near-invisibility and her director’s mistakes.

Most of the first act is essentially a monologue by Maggie, with Brick in little or no mood or condition to respond. Act II is dominated by Big Daddy. The two characters in the drama with the greatest appetites, sexual and otherwise, are Maggie and Big Daddy. It’s easy to see in the interplay between Rose and Jones that their two characters, despite the differences in age, are the most compatible characters onstage.

And yet, for all the wonderful familiarity of that basso profundo voice, I thought that there was something slightly off-kilter in Jones’ performance. It might, again, be traced back to Allen’s peculiar vision for the show.

Fine, demonstrate Big Daddy’s frequent raunchiness (ramped up, like all too much of the humor in this show). But overshadowed in the dirty-old-man persona was the double desperation of this master of all he surveys—suddenly unable, by the cancer slowly taking his life, not only to continue his hold on the estate he has spent years building, but also to establish a bridge with a son who has done his level best, for reasons this most macho of men has trouble understanding, to drink himself into oblivion.

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