at the theatre: cat on a hot tin roof

cat on a hot tin roof

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently being revived on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre with an ineffectual Scarlett Johannsson, has received so many underwhelming notices that I found myself last week at the theater in a most peculiar state: waiting for the curtain to go up with almost no anticipation or expectation. In effect, the evening had failed before it had even begun. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a good state of mind to begin, approaching Rob Ashford’s production as a blank slate does strip the evening of the burden and baggage of memory. If anything, it affords the director an opportunity to recalibrate and restore the text. Elizabeth Taylor might be enshrined in our collective celluloid consciousness in a revealing white slip purring “Maggie the cat is alive!” but Ashford rightly understands that Williams’ parboiled Southern melodrama is really a family affair: a quartet of cats – to beat a metaphor to death – tails up, claws out, and braying for their rightful recompense. His misstep is an inability to find any subtlety in the evening. (Christopher Oram’s gorgeous mixed metaphor bedroom setting is part of the problem: who puts cats in a birdcage?) The drama unfolds in broad, flat strokes, like a table-read put on its feet far too soon. Fine performances from Ciaran Hinds, Benjamin Walker, and Debra Monk can’t mask the fact that the mendacity at the root of this family’s internecine conflict doesn’t have the power to shake us because it’s made so glaringly obvious to everyone except the people onstage. Big moments don’t land because they haven’t been earned. And often Ashford seems content to let the actors revel in Williams’ poetry, rather than connect it to the reality of the mise en scene. It seems that despite the best of intentions this cat’s in free-fall, struggling to find its feet.

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at the theatre: a streetcar named desire

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much from the current revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Something about the African-American casting struck me as a trick, a shtick, an effort to cash in on a trend that started with a sub par Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few seasons back. Plus, there was the luminous spectre of Cate Blanchett – an achingly fragile Blanche in a production of the play that arrived from Australia last season at BAM – still figuring so vividly delicate in my mind. How exciting then to find myself at the Broadhurst Theatre the other night hearing Williams’ play as if for the first time. Led by the inquisitive mind of director Emily Mann, this is not a production that trusts in (or cares for) ghosts. It does, however, believe in the transformative – and destructive – power of desire. Slick with sweat and trapped in a threadbare tenement hothouse, Nicole Ari Parker’s Blanche is no broken butterfly: she’s a carnal animal unable to hold herself in check. Blanche may pretend to be otherwise but Stanley, a virile Blair Underwood, sees her for who she really is – something his wife Stella (the pitch-perfect Daphne Rubin-Vega) cannot bring herself to do. When Stanley succumbs to his own desires, telling Blanche “we’ve had this date from the beginning,” the brutal animalism that follows – here, a graphic scene of anal rap only alluded to in the original stage directions – is a consummation that (finally!) makes sense: there’s a price to be paid for running amok. Consensual desire  – such as that between a husband and wife? – when fulfilled can be transportive – but wantonness is a threat to the social order. That you still feel such powerful empathy for Blanche in the light of her self-destructive concupiscence is a testament to the multi-layered performance of Parker.  Her Blanche is seriously damaged goods – but then again, aren’t we all?

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