Much of the hype surrounding Tennessee William’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” now on Broadway at Richard Rodgers Theatre, is its top-name cast. For example, theater fans might have been intrigued to see Tony winner Debra Monk stalk the stage as Big Mama. Many others might have been curious to take a peep at bombshell starlet Scarlett Johansson in the lead as Maggie (the Cat).
The show, which has a run time of nearly three hours, offers two intermissions that seem like a welcome reprieve from the laborious cat-and-mouse games that take place onstage as potential heirs vie for the vast Southern plantation owned by dying patriarch Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds). That’s because it’s not a play that can rest on its plot. Most of the big secrets — that are to be held up and turned in the light like fine yet flawed gems — come out in the first act. Afterward, it’s just a matter of seeing how the characters bait one another with these revelations and subsequently adjust to each other’s feints. To that end, the impetus should undoubtedly be placed on the actors — though the concept seems to be far from director Rob Ashford’s radar. Unknowns with something to prove might have added a sense of rawness and purity that this production so desperately craves; these cast members are more like show diamonds already indelibly cut and comfortable in their grooves.
Aside from the lush set (literally; its bedroom/bar combo more than underscores the dual demons of Brick, played unevenly by Benjamin Walker), Ashford also spent time on distinctive offstage sound cues, such as shouts, laughter and fireworks, that broke through the play’s most riveting tension at times that were just too well-timed. These often made it hard to believe that a full-fleshed party is actually going on beyond the doors of the sumptuous suite where all of the action takes place. Perhaps this alienation was the director’s intention, but time spent on the punctuation of sound elements might have been best invested in the character’s beats in order to further complicate what is, at its heart, not as much feline but a very human play.