Theater review by David Cote. Richard Rodgers Theatre. By Tennessee Williams. Dir. Rob Ashford. With Scarlett Johansson, Benjamin Walker. 2hrs 45mins. Two intermissions.
When it comes to counterintuitive casting of classic roles, I keep an open mind. John C. Reilly as a homely Stanley Kowalski? I was intrigued. Flaming-haired beauty Jessica Chastain as the plain-faced, titular Heiress? She made it work. Ab-tastic pretty boy Sebastian Stan as 1950s hobo Hal in the recently revisited Picnic? In that world, he was genuine. But I fear the justification train stops at Scarlett Johansson—charming and talented though she is. The film star’s take on Margaret “Maggie the Cat” Pollitt comes across more as a pouty, easily distracted puppy than anything remotely feline.
Paired with a callow Benjamin Walker as her injured, crypto-homosexual husband, Brick, the chemistry-free actors drift without impact through Rob Ashford’s overdesigned and undercooked Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The latest revival of Tennessee Williams’s 1955 study of death, emotional hypocrisy and lies, this production suffers from a lumbering set (by Christopher Oram) that dwarfs the perfomers and has them constantly opening and closing ten-foot-high French doors—which are partly transparent because (sigh) everyone’s eavesdropping. Ashford’s reliance on heavy-handed sound and light effects gilds the lily, when he should be guiding his cast through Williams’s lyrical mix of humor, soul-baring and Lillian Hellman–type family scheming.
The night may be unsatisfying, but it’s not a total loss. Ciarán Hinds’s Big Daddy offers some goatish fun; Debra Monk’s Big Mama bustles and blubbers amusingly. And Emily Bergl’s Mae (Maggie’s sister-in-law and rival for Big Daddy’s inheritance) is deliciously bitchy. Johansson could take a few pointers from Bergl on the fine art of purring.—David Cote
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