Anyone seeking an insightful Broadway revival of a classic American play should run to Golden Boy or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Anyone seeking a glimpse of Scarlett Johansson in a slip should hie to the watchable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which she plays Maggie. Costumer Julie Weiss knows Johansson’s curves as intimately as Maggie’s husband, Brick, knew them before he took to withholding his sexual favours. Maggie’s pale-yellow party dress – the story takes place on the 65th birthday of Big Daddy, Brick’s father – is perfection.
All the physical production co-ordinated by director Rob Ashford for this Tennessee Williams masterpiece is indelible, even if the sky-high ceilings of the Mississippi-plantation set suggest airy splendour rather than the script’s tight, humid evening preceding a storm.
Most of the electricity indoors is generated by Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy and Debra Monk as Big Mama. Hinds hasn’t quite the rotundity that we expect from Broadway Big Daddys. His beard and slick-backed hair suggest the con game of a riverboat gambler rather than the high stakes of an earthy Mississippi planter struggling with the spectre of cancer. But the actor’s southern accent isn’t syrupy, and he achieves genuine pathos in the act-two showdown with Brick about the latter’s intimate relationship with his deceased buddy, Skipper.
Monk’s Big Mama prods and pokes Maggie with the practiced skill of a professional character actor. Linguistically, Williams does not require her to serve up slices of spicy Southern fruitcake; Big Daddy’s birthday dessert will do. What poetry her character possesses Monk doesn’t linger over.
If Benjamin Walker gives us a solid Brick awash in whisky, Johansson delivers a Maggie with a whisky voice. The huskiness comes as a surprise in one so young, and cues us that her voice may be headed the way of Kathleen Turner’s. Johansson shies away from the poses that can turn Maggie the Cat into Maggie the Sex Kitten, but she doesn’t find much biting humour in the role – the way that Elizabeth Taylor did in the 1958 movie version. The performance is modestly accomplished, but furnishes little insight into the character, just as the production does not boost our understanding of why, other than as a vehicle for a movie star, this drama deserved to be so lavishly revived.