March 8, 2008

A Skittish "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

The choreography of a curtain call can tell you a lot about a show. The last bow traditionally goes to the starring role. But sometimes it just goes to a star, the biggest name in the show or the one whose face on the poster producers think will sell the most tickets. There are three Tony winners in the all black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre this week. But neither Anika Noni Rose, who plays Maggie, the wife desperate to seduce a disinterested and possibly gay husband; nor Phylicia Rashad, who plays Big Mama, her chatterbox mother-in-law; nor James Earl Jones, who plays Big Daddy, the tyrannical and dying head of the clan, gets to walk on last. Instead, that honor goes to Terrence Howard, an actor making his stage debut in the role of Brick, the husband and son who tries to drown his unhappiness in alcohol.

Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of a wealthy but self-delusional southern family is sometimes played as Maggie’s story. And sometimes as Big Daddy’s. But, although he is the objective of their attention and actions, it is seldom Brick’s story. And it isn’t this time either. This is not to say that Howard embarrasses himself; he doesn’t. He turns in a performance that is obviously well t
hought out, perhaps a touch too much so. But that’s not why he’s getting top billing. It’s because two years ago, Howard won an Oscar nomination for his performance in the movie “Hustle & Flow” as a pimp who dreams of making it big as a rapper. The Cat producers clearly hope that his movie star looks and hip reputation will draw young audiences eager to see him in person even if they’ve never heard of Tennessee Williams. And Howard seems to have the kind of ego that probably made the billing a deal-breaker for his taking the part. Even though the show is a limited run, scheduled to end on June 15, Howard is planning to take off April 15 to May 22 to promote an upcoming movie (click here to read a revealing interview he gave New York magazine).

My sister, who r
ates Cat as her favorite Tennessee Williams play (I’m an A Streetcar Named Desire gal), really wanted to see the show but developed a bad case of the flu and so gave her ticket to my 28 year-old niece Jennifer, who’s the exact demographic— young, black and into pop culture—the producers were hoping to woo. And the audience the night we went was certainly more diverse—in age and color—than most Broadway audiences tend to be. Jennifer and I grabbed a quick dinner at the venerable theater eatery Sardi’s before the show. We went there because she got off from work late and it’s right across the street from the Broadhurst. We saw several young black couples at other tables whom we later spotted in the Cat audience. Although Jennifer, addicted to the mussels and the more casual ambience at Angus McIndoe, wasn’t all that impressed with eating at Sardi’s, not even when I tried to point out some of her favorite actors among the trademark caricatures that adorn the restaurant’s walls. But she liked the show so much that she actually went home and put the 1958 movie version, with Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, Paul Newman as Brick and Burl Ives as Big Daddy, on her Netflix list of movies to rent.

I was a little less impressed. Ray Klausen’s cramped set didn’t really work, William H. Grant III’s lighting worked too hard and too many of Debbie Allen’s directorial choices didn’t quite make sense—I still don’t know why a saxophonist walked across the stage at the be
ginning of the show. But the biggest disappointment for me was Rose’s Maggie. The actress looks terrific in her skin-baring lingerie but her portrayal of this fascinating character is only skin deep. It's the old pros Rashad and Jones who save the day. She brings a poignancy to the role of Big Mama, making her less a fool and more a woman who is knowingly trying to fill any vacant silences before things are said that shouldn’t be. And he brings the age-defying sexiness of a self-made man who has clawed his way to power and revels in the pleasure of throwing it around. The fact that they are African-American isn't addressed head-on and nor should it be; but it does add extra texture and tension and that's a good thing.

Critics were split on the production. But, despite its faults, this is a crowd-pleaser of a show. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way. There really can be wisdom in crowds. The inevitable standing ovation began when Rashad, second from last, walked on the stage for her final bow. And the cheers for Jones actually greeted his entrance. When he walked on for his bow at the end, the audience roared with delight. By the time Howard came on, he seemed almost an afterthought.

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