These days four-letter vulgarities don’t always bring down the house, probably because not everyone snarls the word “crap” with the authority of Ned Beatty. The moment comes midway through the new West End revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and provides the revivifying aspersion that Anthony Page’s otherwise becalmed and largely miscast production needs. Throughout the first act, you may admire the sheer determination of Frances O’Connor, an accomplished actress so physically ill-suited to the role of Maggie that her appearance throws the evening off-balance, just as co-star Brendan Fraser’s London stage debut deserves applause in theory rather than on actual merit. Small wonder that Beatty’s Big Daddy single-handedly gives one of Tennessee Williams’ more fevered plays back its guts: For a drama situated within a “house of death,” his cancer-plagued patriarch is this “Cat’s” primary source of life.
That Beatty’s major perf is largely occurring in a vacuum comes as something of a surprise, and one can only assume Page did what he could with the casting hand he was dealt. (At the same time, the mouth waters at what might have been had Janet McTeer and Owen Teale — Page’s incendiary, and Tony-laureled, pairing from “A Doll’s House” — taken the lead roles here.) And it’s equally true that the principals’ shortcomings — among other things, both seem too young — wouldn’t be so markedly shown up were Beatty not on hand to rip into the part’s decisive faceoff with such abandon that he rivals Broadway memories in the same role of Charles Durning, who at the time seemed definitive.
It’s Big Daddy, of course, who blows apart the edifice of lies on which the Pollitt family has been constructed, among them — with bruising irony — the truth about this fearsome patriarch’s condition. Beatty captures the wry majesty of a role that often suggests a Southern Gothic Lear, and his expert delivery ensures the third-act elephant joke gets its due laugh, even if one might have preferred the version of the text that leaves Big Daddy offstage for the final reckoning, his cries slicing the air.
And so should Maggie’s despair when Williams’ ripest heroine stalks the stage, her desire for a fertile and satisfying sexual life cruelly contrasted (on the fecundity issue, anyway) by sister-in-law Mae (a pertly malevolent Abigail McKern), who keeps pumping out those “no-neck monster” kids. O’Connor, her screen freshness no less appealing onstage, seizes the role emotionally but not bodily, which in this play really does matter.
The fact is, she’s just too slight and manicured a presence to inhabit one of the American theater’s defining temptresses, a feline in fierce pursuit of a husband busy shutting down around her. Inheriting one of Williams’ trickiest male roles — always a perilous task — a crutch-wielding Fraser possesses the incipiently sagging flesh (his “Gods and Monsters” physique is no longer in place) but not the acidic self-reproach. That babyish face may work overtime to signal emotion, but the perf seems oddly unfelt.
Without a teasing give-and-take between Maggie and Brick — a sense that the continuous action of the play finds the couple at flashpoint — there’s only so much heat “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” can generate, even if McKern and Clive Carter, playing the avaricious Gooper, do particularly well by potentially thankless parts. (For the record, McKern’s father, former “Rumpole of the Bailey” star Leo, was London’s original Big Daddy in 1958.)
Dressed in a concoction of a color best described as glistening mud, Gemma Jones reduces Big Mama to the level of a pantomime dame, which only makes doubly welcome Beatty’s exhilarating command of Maria Bjornson’s high-walled and airy near-prison of a set. As his Big Daddy bears down on a drunkard son, the two moving toward and away from a Mississippi plantation’s lasting “mendacity,” a giant play rises up in full fury, only to fall away again once a great rumbler has had his final roar.