Recent Broadway seasons have boasted at least one, and sometimes two, major revivals of plays by Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, but the third definitive name in American theater history books, Tennessee Williams, has gone strangely unrepresented. The relative drought now comes to an end with Anthony Page's exceedingly pretty but lopsided production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Recent Broadway seasons have boasted at least one, and sometimes two, major revivals of plays by Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, but the third definitive name in American theater history books, Tennessee Williams, has gone strangely unrepresented. The relative drought now comes to an end with Anthony Page’s exceedingly pretty but lopsided production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Not until Ned Beatty’s ferocious Big Daddy storms the stage in act two does Williams’ expansive tale of a Southern family squabbling in the shadow of death come fully alive. The production’s other marquee names, movie starlet Ashley Judd and the broodingly handsome Jason Patric, are certainly visually alluring, but not entirely effective in their demanding roles.

Taste is subjective, of course, but it seems to me that Broadway has never seen a more ravishingly beautiful feline than Judd’s Maggie the Cat. (Deepest apologies to prior Maggies, not to mention 18 years of chorus kids in a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza.) Gorgeously dressed by Jane Greenwood in flesh-colored silk and layers of coral chiffon, her milky skin and delicate features lovingly caressed by Howard Harrison’s lemony lighting, Judd is an idealized vision of 1950s womanhood in all its creamy perfection. Who’s to say that even the movie’s Maggie, legendary beauty Elizabeth Taylor — whom Judd at times recalls — could have looked this magnificent eight times a week?

But Maggie is not Suzy Parker, a frozen image from a vintage Vogue. She talks, too — and how! The play’s first act is virtually a solo aria for Maggie, punctuated by percussive bursts of disgust or disinterest from Brick, her hunky husband busy fishing for oblivion in a bottle of booze. And try though Judd vigorously does to fully inhabit the role, her performance is compromised by her inability to communicate the lyrical quality of Williams’ dialogue. You almost have to admire the thorough manner in which the actress pummels all the poetry out of the writing.

Judd captures Maggie’s relentlessness and her caged sense of frustration — you can see the veins bulging in her neck as she seethes at her in-laws’ machinations — but the character’s other qualities are steamrolled by the actress’s monotonous performance. Notably missing are Maggie’s sly wit — digs are delivered with a sarcastic drawl and a glare — as well as the fear, the insecurity and the sensitivity that should flicker darkly underneath the tough shell Maggie has constructed in order to make her way through life. After a while, the audience is tempted to join Brick in simply tuning the woman out. Delivered without the musical coloring that gives them eloquence and charm, Maggie’s tirades are simply exhausting.

Perhaps this is why Patric’s Brick is most potent in repose. Resisting Maggie’s importuning with a placid shrug and a prim purse of the lips, Patric draws us in with his mysterious, vacant gaze. Clad in white pajamas, Brick is the eerie ghost of the athletic young god he once was, and Patric hauntingly conveys the immense distance Brick has placed between himself and the world.

He may still await the “click” provided by liquor that will deliver him to absolute indifference, but even before that longed-for moment arrives, Patric’s Brick is observing the frantic convulsions that constitute daily life on the family plantation in the same cool way a spectator from another town might view a local parade.

The festivities in question are, of course, the spasms attending the imminent death of the family patriarch, Big Daddy. Maggie’s nettlesome desire to keep Brick on the edge of sobriety is motivated by a need to secure their place in the ongoing life of the plantation after Big Daddy’s demise. Her foes are the cartoonishly rapacious in-laws, Brick’s older brother Gooper and his wife, the “monster of fertility” referred to most commonly as Sister Woman. These gorgons of ambition, a comically inept, chicken-fried Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, are played with understated authority by Michael Mastro and Amy Hohn.

In the miniature cosmos of the play, they represent the life force at its most instinctive and crass. Williams’ play is at once a black comedy of family angst and a poetic meditation on the opposing forces of life and death, eros and thanatos. The combat between them is most fiercely fought in the person of Big Daddy, a great theatrical image of the vitality of human endeavor rubbing up against the irrefutable fact of its transience. In Beatty’s quietly fierce performance as Big Daddy, we see clearly how simultaneously noble, tragic and grotesque the conflict can become.

The specter of death has been made clearly visible here, in a production that is admirably scrupulous about surface details (the handsome set by the late Maria Bjornson is at once naturalistic and poetic). Big Daddy’s cheeks have a distinct gray pallor, and his suit hangs a little loosely on his frame, hinting at the flesh that has been eaten away by illness. But Beatty’s Big Daddy has an almost vicious ebullience that belies these signals: He bounces jubilantly on his heels as he unleashes a merry torrent of cruel taunts at his wife, played with an affecting dignity by Margo Martindale.

Big Mama has come to symbolize, for this man who believes he has just chased away the reaper, the death in life of his past 40 years. His revulsion for her is allied to his desperate hunger to strip away the layers of lies and evasions that he now realizes have sapped the joy from his existence. As we wince at his nasty barbs, we also admire his raging need to cut away the “crap” that clogs his path.

In the play’s scorching second act, Big Daddy tries to communicate to Brick his new sense of life’s mystery and glory. Big Daddy had evaded a reckoning with the truth of his empty life by throwing himself into his work, and he now sees his beloved son making a similar escape into booze and is determined to thwart it. Both men share a contempt for “mendacity,” but Big Daddy believes that underneath the lies of life is the real, true life, while Brick sees beneath them something else — for this young man haunted by the loss of his great love, the real truth of life is death.

Their battle rages freely, for almost an hour of stage time, and it is the captivating highlight of Page’s production. Beatty’s marvelously blunt and forceful Big Daddy is the invigorating factor here; Big Daddy’s desperate determination to throttle his son’s demons is as touching as his vulgar vitality is hilarious. Patric holds his own, although the effort begins to show. His performance becomes increasingly eccentric and mannered as Brick’s emotions are laid bare by his father’s inquisition — it seems to gradually evolve into a florid, self-conscious tribute to Marlon Brando.

Still, the play’s emotional climax casts its sad spell as Brick throws down his trump card, the truth about Big Daddy’s diagnosis. The impact of this ugly irony — that Big Daddy’s crusade against “mendacity” has itself been founded on a lie — sinks slowly into his spirit, disorientation giving way to recognition and finally fury. When he returns in the play’s anticlimactic third act, the anger has abated. The battle is over: The last lie has been exposed and death appears to be the victor. Or is it? Maggie, the play’s real image of fertility, asserts the power of regeneration with her announcement that she’s pregnant. Another lie, of course, but a more comforting one. We’re left with a consoling paradox — today’s lie could be tomorrow’s truth.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Music Box Theater; 1,019 seats; $85 top

Production

A Bill Kenwright presentation of a play by Tennessee Williams in three acts. Directed by Anthony Page.

Creative

Sets, Maria Bjornson; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Christopher Cronin; music, Neil McArthur; production stage manager, Susie Cordon. Opened Nov. 2, 2003. Reviewed Oct. 31. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Margaret - Ashley Judd Brick - Jason Patric Mae - Amy Hohn Gooper - Michael Mastro Big Mama - Margo Martindale Reverend Tooker - Patrick Collins Big Daddy - Ned Beatty Doctor Baugh - Edwin C. Owens Lacey - Alvin Keith Brightie - Starla Benford Nursemaid - Jo Twiss Buster - Charles Saxton Dixie - Isabella Mehiel Trixie - Pamela Jane Henning Polly - Muireann Phelan Sonny - Zachary Ross

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