Went to see the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this afternoon. It was an extraordinary experience, as the Broadhurst was completely sold out and the audience was alive and kicking. Truth be told, this is my first Wednesday matinee since I saw Urinetown on, would you believe it, Wednesday March 12, 2003.
I was fascinated by the mixed critical response. The ways in which they were divided only made me want to see the production more. Many critics singled out one of the four leads as the chief asset of the play; making you wonder if they saw the same production. I thought that it was a decent production; well staged, well-acted. It could have used some tightening and reigning in at points, but the experience was never ultimately hindered. In fact, my only problem was the tendency for broadness. The ever-youthful Anika Noni Rose of Caroline, or Change is all grown up as the sexually frustrated Maggie the Cat. Rose is alluring, sensual and really manages to convey her character’s sincerity. Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones are forces of nature as Ida and Big Daddy. Rashad storms onstage during the first act like whirling dervish and you just can’t help but adore her. Her third act arc is beautifully realized with pain and humor. Jones is having more fun than should be allowed by law – and he makes no attempt to hide it. Big Daddy is the scene-stealer of the piece; he gets the bawdier jokes and has the most dynamic character arc. When he’s raunchy, he is RAUNCHY, but is incredibly poignant in the second act when confronting Brick for the truth behind his problems. Terrence Howard made an impressive stage debut with a subtly nuanced turn as Brick. I’m hoping that he continues to look for stage work as he could amass an impressive body of theatrical credits; and become an even more stellar stage actor in the process. Giancarlo Esposito and Lisa Arrindell Anderson are Gooper and Mae (Sister Woman), the conniving brother and sister-in-law, who are characters straight out of melodrama, and go overboard far too often.
The change in the characters’ race adds a fresh perspective on a classic work; it is also bringing out a larger African-American audience, who were the majority of the audience at this afternoon’s performance and were thoroughly engaged. The audience as a whole had an energy that may have surpassed the high-octane charge onstage. What surprised me so much was the amount of laughter that has been the response. I’m not sure it was directed as such; I think it just happens. We’ve grown used to hearing shocking and depraved things on TV, the news, etc. that our sensibilities have softened. The frank talk of sexual desire and homosexual overtones that shocked audiences in 1955 (and had to be toned down for the highly entertaining film adaptation of 1958) doesn’t have the same impact today. Our tendency nowadays is to laugh at dysfunction rather than let it shock us. A couple of times I felt uncomfortable – laughter when Brick was chasing Maggie around the bedrom with the crutch and during the candles exchange between Ida and Big Daddy (Rashad is heartbreaking in that moment, I might add). Later on at dinner I thought more about that: the characters and themes at August: Osage County are much more dysfunctional and shocking than anything in Cat and the audiences are howling even more at that one. Just the way things are. And that’s okay. It’s fun to be at a matinee crowd that wasn’t saddled with students or elder theatre patrons. This performance was alive on and offstage and that kind of energy just fuels the fun factor in such an experience. If not the perfect production of the play, it’s a highly entertaining and engaging experience.
And it might be insidious to add, but Tennessee Williams sure writes fantastic and memorable dialogue. Always a good time.