Liz Smith: Broadway’s Snarling New “Cat”

“OH, you weak beautiful people, who give up with such grace …”

Those are Maggie the Cat’s final lines in Tennessee Williams’ classic stage tale of frustrated love, tortured lust, greed and mendacity.

Tennessee’s three-act epic about a Southern family falling apart is best known as a sanitized but still sizzling 1958 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor as the wife in heat and Paul Newman (Brick) as her inexplicably disinterested husband.

Onstage, Brick’s motivations for not wishing to sleep with his luscious wife are somewhat clearer. But only somewhat. The implications that Brick and his “best friend” Skipper — who committed suicide — were “more than friends,” are still shrouded in hysterical denial. Except, interestingly, from Brick’s dying father, Big Daddy Pollock, who if not approving, at least seems to understand where some men’s needs lead them.

Williams’ play is having another revival at the Richard Rodgers Theater this season, starring Scarlett Johansson the sexy movie star, as the frantic Maggie. Plus the mighty attractive Benjamin Walker (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) as the confused, bitter and temporarily crippled Brick. His character suffers a broken leg during an alcohol-fueled accident.

The problem? Well, even though the show is supposed to be about a lack of sex between the participants, neither Scarlett nor Benjamin appear to have ever been interested in the act. She is — as Williams intended — coarse and loud, but perhaps Scarlett overdoes does it. (As brilliant as Elizabeth Taylor was onscreen, she was, at that point, still a bit pristine and MGM-glossy to be entirely believable as a once-poor girl who used to wear “hand me down dresses from a snotty rich cousin I hated.” She was, however, quite sympathetic in her efforts to lure her husband back to performing his marital duties.) Miss Johansson, on the other hand, is possibly too brash to elicit much sympathy.

“Cat” is a long play and the actress often rushes her lines and swallows Tennessee’s dialogue. (Of course, if she spoke any slower we’d still be in the theater!) She is attractive, in and out of her slip, but hardly erotic. Strange, for a young woman so well-known for her allure. It is undeniably interesting to see this actress away from her usual quiescent roles, raising her voice and attempting to take charge, but her efforts seem self-consciously strenuous.

As for Walker, the role of Brick is difficult enough. He hobbles around in a cast, is mostly quietly drunk and seemingly uninterested in the chaos around him. Walker plays it as so laid back that he is practically not on stage. Even shirtless he has little charisma here. In “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” he was dynamic and just the opposite.

IT IS impossible not to be fascinated by any work of Tennessee Williams. He’s long-winded, but with gusts of heart-stopping beauty and perception.

The set design by Christopher Oram is gorgeously gauzy, atmospheric and to the point. The bed that Maggie and Brick no longer share dominates the stage. This “Cat” is directed by Rob Ashford, who has suffered at the hands of many critics. (He has not had much experience presenting drama.)

The most complete performances are delivered by Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy and Debra Monk as Big Mama — he hates her, she loves him — she even loves his hate. It is a far more complex and wrenching tale than the rantings of Maggie and the drunken indifference of Brick.

I couldn’t possibly NOT recommend Broadway’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The beauty of Tennessee’s language is for the ages, and no actor can improve it or ruin it. That dialogue stands alone and it is worth sitting in a theater to hear.

As for Scarlett, she has made a gritty effort to take herself out of her perceived screen image. If not entirely successful, it is noteworthy, applause worthy and (one hopes) just the beginning of new thresholds for this beauty, onstage and onscreen.

AWARD SHOWS have a problem. It’s always the same old (or new and overexposed) faces at the podium. We are reduced to commenting on what they are wearing and if they have gained or — much more likely — lost weight since their last public appearance. Or are they drunk or on drugs?!

So, after a 36-year absence from performing at the Oscars, I consider it great news that Barbra Streisand will sing on Oscar night. (Also appearing, is the wonderful Adele.)
Barbra is a real star. The last great original star to spring from the dying days of the studio system. (The last great original star, period, in my opinion.) And, she was self-created, more or less.

So now everybody’s talking about Barbra and the Oscars. She has, in effect, hijacked the night. All to the good, I say.

No word yet what she’ll perform. Who cares? It’ll be buttah, for sure.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 2/1/13

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar JERILYN says:

    Another great article from our ” Dame of Dish” Liz Smith. Loved Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat’ and thought she deserved the Oscar for that performance. I am thrilled to see Barbra Streisand and Adele will appear on the Academy Awards. As you said “Who cares what she sings?” They are simply the best! HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO OUR “GREAT DAME OF DISH” LIZ SMITH! You look marvelous DARLIN! L’CHAIM to Liz Smith enjoy your week of celebration.

  2. avatar luisromo says:

    My sweet Liz…

    Now yes.. Happy Birthday from Barcelona, Spain. I love you and I will always love you. Thank you for your help… Lots of best wishes,

    Luis Fernando Romo