Tennessee Williams builds quite a case against lies and liars in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," one of his most brutal and direct plays. Just as mendacity may be the word to dramatize the play’s major theme, it is the underlying honesty, the savage humor, and the genuine compassion that the playwright wrenches from his key characters that forces us to respond with exhilaration to their guilt, greed and mortality. In fact, "Cat" — which confronts every emotional malaise with compassion and honesty — contains some of the most exhilarating scenes in all dramatic literature. And the miracle of the play is that it can hold its head up even if its front teeth are being knocked out by less than affective performances in the key roles.

The plot, overflowing with talk of sexual perversity and familial rivalry, concerns the attempts of Maggie to get her husband Brick back in the sack, not an easy task since Brick has taken to drinking himself into a stupor since he discovered that Maggie slept with his best friend, whose sexual preference was apparently being put to a test. Disgusted by and with Maggie, Brick is equally unwilling, unlike the rest of the family, to either cow-tow to Big Daddy, connive for control of the family estate, or lie to him about his impending death from cancer.

The miracle of this production, under the direction of Anthony Page, is that it is held up primarily by the touching and terrific performance of Margo Martindale as Big Mama. Martindale, who is making her Broadway debut, but has memorably buoyed many a star-driven film ("The Human Stain," "The Hours," among them), is giving a performance that must not go unrewarded at awards time. Martindale engineers much more than a persuasive statement on the essential attributes of the valiant Southern matriarch. She alone, laughing ever graciously through a barrage of humiliations, sustains the Dixie-bred dynamics that propel the play. Hers is the performance that makes this rather perfunctory production memorable.

This is a "Cat" that includes the subtle rewrites, franker language, and more ambivalent resolve that Williams preferred and subsequently made for a 1974 revival. (For the original 1955 production, Williams obliged director Elia Kazan with changes that softened Brick and made him more redeemable.) In general, it is for the supporting casting cast to keep this "Cat" on its feet.

Interestingly Ned Beatty is no "Big Daddy" in the expected sense. Beatty, who is recreating the role he played in the London production and for which he was nominated for the prestigious Olivier Award, has to count on resources other than mere girth to bring the doomed despot of the Delta to the forefront. Just as Beatty’s bellowing is accurately filled with bursts of disdain and condescension, his quieter moments reveal the acute despair and disappointments of a lifetime surrounded by deceit. No complaints here.

Other impressive performances include the funny and sad portrait that constitutes Amy Hohn’s inquisitive Sister Woman, and the nervously distraught performance of Michael Mastro, as Gooper, her pathetic greed-driven husband. I have reservations about the otherwise strikingly beautiful Ashley Judd’s Maggie and the unquestionably virile good-looking Jason Patric’s Brick. It can be said in regard to Judd’s melodically intoned Southern accent, something that comes naturally for (as her bio tells us) this eighth generation Eastern Kentuckian, she never lost it. As to Judd’s motor-mouth delivery of the lengthy monologue that primarily sustains Act 1, unbroken in its clarity of purpose, she fired it off with dispatch and with a tenacious resolve to see it through.

If the director Page is to blame for letting Patric pose like a muscle-bound sleepwalker waiting for clicks in his head to wake him up, Patric must take the blame for avoiding any real investigation in either the words to be spoken or the more provocative unsaid words that Williams put into Brick’s alcoholic head. The director’s choice to have Maggie and Brick pose and face the audience when presumably looking into mirrors becomes tiresome very quickly. Greenwood’s costumes and Howard Harrison’s lighting found hospitality within Maria Bjornson’s single set of a bed-sitting room and section of the gallery of plantation house in the Mississippi Delta that at times was overrun by Mae and Gooper’s obnoxious no-neck monsters. What is needed is a plantation more acutely overrun by a more persuasive Maggie and Brick. HH

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street, New York. Tele-Charge 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

#h#`Retreat From Moscow’#/h#

Other peoples’ rotten marriages can and should be exhilarating and maybe even fun to watch on stage, as in Strindberg’s "The Dance of Death" and Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe." We can, after all, stand (or sit) back, removed from the fray, the cruelties, love or loathe one or the other partner, and walk away generally feeling superior or, at least, better off.

The odd thing about William Nicholson’s "The Retreat From Moscow," at the Booth Theater, is that one is unlikely to feel much compassion, sympathy, or empathy for either husband or wife. Edward is a professor of religious studies with a concentrated devotion to crossword puzzles. Alice, a poetry maven working on the "Lost Love" section of her personal anthology of English poetry, concentrates on goading Edward.

Despite the fact that Alice and Edward are played by the extremely gifted and resourceful actors Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow, and that they milk ever bit of idiosyncratic behavior from two otherwise rather boring people, one is not likely to care about what happens. Their 32-year-old son Jamie, a somewhat non-descript nebbish, is played for somewhat less than he is worth by Ben Chaplin.

The author, best known for "Shadowlands," both the stage and TV versions, is skillful enough as far as it goes in creating flesh and blood characters based on his parents, but less when it comes to himself. That’s fine and dandy, but it would have helped his case if he had something going for aside from being a cipher. Jamie is summoned to hang around as a buffer between parents whose marriage has already disintegrated and is now in the throws of a messy (what else?) divorce.

Because it all takes place in the English countryside, lots of tea is poured between Edward’s revelation that he has fallen in love with the mother of one of his students, and Alice’s refusal to understand why their inharmonious, passionless, incompatible relationship should end.

Thanks to Atkins, watching the desperately aggressive Alice "go at" the edgy, but determinedly passive Edward, has its compensation for the first hour or so. But her constant badgering and futile attempts to convince Edward that interest in her can be reawakened is ultimately wearying after two-and-a-half hours. Thanks to the many ways that Lithgow has found to subtly adorn Edward’s stupefying dullness, even when sparked by his fascination with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow, we get more than we bargained for.

To be sure, Edward and Alice were ill met when he got on the wrong train 33 years ago. Alice is a devout Catholic, cloyingly pious, and clinging as hard to her faith as she is to Edward. Edward apparently has had a secret life and gradually shows subtle signs of being someone he has not been in 33 years. He also opines philosophically about how the retreating French was forced to show no mercy for the wounded they had to leave behind to die. Alice makes a point of not believing in the easy way out while reciting stanzas from Robert Frost, George Herbert, and Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach." Daniel Sullivan’s direction is as keenly focused as the actors. It is, however, up to designer John Lee Beatty’s abstract setting of a home being strangled and consumed by an overgrown, but barren, forest to state more than the obvious. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

The Retreat From Moscow, Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, New York. $61 to $81. Tele-Charge 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

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