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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at the theatre: one arm

Most unproduced scripts remain so for a good reason: they stink. Though on rare occasion a worthwhile or revelatory story falls victim to the passing zeitgeist – or even something as mundane and random as “scheduling difficulties” – coming to light only in an author’s afterlife thanks to the random diggings of an academic or biographer, more often than not the majority of aborted dramas remain squirreled away in the proverbial bottom desk drawer because they’re efforts unworthy of the author who either cannot let go of them for some intimate reasons known only to them or because they have been rightfully forgotten, not because they are misunderstood masterpieces awaiting post-millenial redemption. I’m afraid that One Arm, adapted and directed for the stage by Moises Kaufman for The New Group from an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams, falls firmly in the category of one those bottom drawer curiosities best left undisturbed. Thematically, it’s vintage Williams: regret and redemption in the seedy underbelly of the Vieux Carre; however, this story of a champion boxer who loses one arm only to quickly descend into the lonely world of hustling – and ultimately murder – doesn’t hang together dramatically.  One has to blame Kaufman, who makes a fatal error in creating a god-awful framing device that only serves to keep the audience at arms length. “One Arm, an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams,” intones the narrator/writer at the curtain’s rise.  It sets the audience up to be spectators, disconcerted voyeurs even, but it also shuts us out as participants. About all we can do is ogle the story of Ollie Olson, all-American hustler, as he suffers one moral degradation after another.  What we can’t do is identify – something that’s crucial to making Williams’ heightened lyricism work. On the eve of his execution, a stranger’s visit causes Ollie to realize just how many lives he has touched. Facing down death, the protective shell cracks: his arm may be mangled but Ollie still feels things. His final moments are a desperate grasp at connection with this stranger; a thwarted need to receive love.  It’s the kind of moment any lover of Williams aches to believe – the moment of the metaphor made flesh.  What’s heartbreaking is that in Kaufman’s production it comes off as half-baked. Or rather, er, one-armed.

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