It’s impossible to second guess what Tennessee Williams would think about having an all black cast portray the familiar characters that propel "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." This most brutal and direct play about lies and liars, however, demonstrates its ability to reach beyond its heretofore prescribed racial border. That it is produced frequently also validates the play’s unlimited universal appeal. And who could deny that the role of Big Daddy is tailored to the larger-than-life presence of James Earl Jones, one the theater’s towering stars? His performance alone makes mandatory a visit to the Broadhurst Theater.
It isn’t that the somewhat pedestrian staging by Debbie Allen doesn’t offer a reasonable consideration of the play’s underlying honesty and savage humor. Some of the players, however, have a harder time displaying the tone and temperament of Williams’ key characters. Despite a few over-the-top and under-cooked performances, it is almost impossible not to respond with exhilaration to their characters’ guilt, greed, and mortality.
"Cat," which confronts every emotional malaise with compassion and honesty, contains some of the most exhilarating scenes in all dramatic literature. The miracle of the play is that it can hold its head up even if it is an uphill battle. 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.
While the multi-award winning ("The Great White Hope" and "Fences," among many others) Jones has lifted many a fine play into the realm of greatness, his resources go way beyond his girth to bring the doomed despot of the Delta to the forefront. Although Jones’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. Except for the too lethargically paced confrontation scene in Act II between Big Daddy and Brick, there are no complaints.
Interestingly, the previous Broadway production in 2003 was buoyed by the touching and terrific performance of Margo Martindale, as Big Mama, who was making her Broadway debut. Phylicia Rashad, who scored a Tony for "A Raisin in the Sun" and a Tony nomination for "Gem of the Ocean," indicates with verve and more glamour than we have come to expect as the essential attributes of this valiant Southern matriarch. It’s hard to imagine Big Daddy’s disgust with her considering how attractive she is. But who cannot be moved watching Big Mama laugh graciously through a barrage of humiliations?
This is a "Cat" that includes the 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.) Surprisingly, some of the supporting performances, often a boon to past productions, barely register with their calculated intrusions. Lisa Arrindell Anderson comes close to caricature as Mae, the "Sister Woman," whose nasty inquisitiveness is as bald-faced as is her state of pregnancy. Giancarlo Esposito has his moments as Mae’s husband. But he also allows the pathetic, greed-driven Gooper to be reduced to a less than persuasive character.
There is no denying that Anika Noni Rose is a fine actress as well as having a body that deserves and gets lots of attention from us, if not from her stupefied husband, Brick. Winner of a Tony award for "Caroline, or Change," Rose dominates the stage action with her sensually empowered body language, even if her voice tends to be shrill and unnerving. Despite this, Rose’s motor-mouth delivery of the lengthy monologue that primarily sustains Act 1 never loses its clarity of purpose, and she fires it off with a tenacious resolve to see it through.
It’s hard to know if director Allen encouraged Terrence Howard to discover just how enervated he could be while waiting for clicks in his head to wake him up. Howard, best known for his Academy Award-nominated performance in "Hustle & Flow," must take the responsibility for evading the power of the words to be spoken. He did seem at times as if he were trying to get into Brick’s alcoholic head and pursue an emotional connection.
Ray Klausen’s single set of a bedroom/sitting room and section of the gallery of a plantation house in the Mississippi Delta looked as predictably unimaginative as were the antics of Mae and Gooper’s obnoxious no-neck monsters. If anything seems mostly amiss it is the reliance on and encouragement of easy laughs. The play, nevertheless, is not so much as dated as it is dependant upon a production that can revel in its passe oeuvre and reveal its electrifying theatricality. Sadly, this is not the one to comply.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," through June 15, the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street. $61.50 to $91.50. 212-239-6200.