Tennessee Williams play recharged

Who knew Tennessee Williams was the Neil Simon of the 1950s?

This revelation struck me about halfway through the last act of the current Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Broadhurst Theater. The play, which shocked audiences in 1955 with its bold references to homosexuality, has always gotten laughs with its none-too-subtle jokes about “no-neck monsters” and its sitcom staple in a henpecked husband named Gooper. But never have I seen Maggie’s on-bended-knee third-act shocker — “A child is coming, sired by Brick, and out of Maggie the Cat!” — greeted with belly laughs followed by a spontaneous outburst of applause. Even the sex farce revival “Boeing-Boeing” never delivered this big on its recent opening night.

Is the new, rollicking redux of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” drawing inappropriate reactions owing to a crass, if not wholly misconceived, production? I think not.

Debbie Allen’s all-black “Cat” played to a 90% African-American audience the evening I saw it earlier this month. Critics and first-nighters probably saw this staging with a decidedly more mixed group of theatergoers, and it’s possible they, in turn, experienced a very different night in the theater. (Certainly the Tony nominating committee didn’t care for what they saw, bestowing not a single nom on the production.) But for me, Maggie’s power-struggle for money and sex has never been so naked, and, more important, never has it been more fully appreciated and encouraged.

Black audiences have made this play their own. In a way, this “Cat” has come home to roost, to mix metaphors.

The same phenomenon must have happened nearly 50 years ago when “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway and played to nearly all-white audiences. Shortly before Ossie Davis’ death in 2005, I asked the actor and his wife, Ruby Dee, about those early audience reactions to Lorraine Hansberry’s play. Dee starred in that production, and Davis understudied Sidney Poitier before replacing him in the role of angry young man Walter Lee Younger.

Dee said that the first performance, out of town in New Haven, Conn., absolutely startled the cast because there was so much laughter from the audience. “We didn’t think we were performing a comedy,” she said.

Davis had a slightly different take on the white audiences’ response to this play about a black family’s ambition to move into an all-white neighborhood. Did 1958 Broadway audiences viscerally object to that dream?

“No,” Davis replied. But not for the reasons one might think, in his opinion. “You must understand, an audience comes to own a play,” he quickly added. “Lorraine had written about a young black man’s rage. But that isn’t what the white audience responded to. They saw, and embraced, how the mother character controlled her son’s rage. And that is not the play Lorraine had written.”

It took 50 years, but finally a black audience has come to own a white man’s play on Broadway. The difference is, I don’t feel they’ve distorted “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” the way Hansberry’s message got twisted.

With a black actress (Anika Noni Rose) playing Maggie, the will to rise up from adversity is heightened. Due to racism, the stakes are higher for both Big Daddy (James Earl Jones) and Maggie, and there’s no cushion for Brick (Terrence Howard) in his career slide from football star to drunken has-been. The excessive chattiness of both Maggie and Big Mama (Phylicia Rashad) might be overplayed in Allen’s staging; this directorial flourish certainly sets the comedy in motion. But then again, even here the laughter underlines Maggie’s utter fear of morphing into Big Mama.

Marlon Brando once said he wished he had emphasized the comedy more when essaying Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I was reminded of his remark not only with this “Cat” but also with Ivo van Hove’s 1999 New York Theater Workshop staging of “Streetcar,” which had Blanche (Elizabeth Marvel) diving into a bathtub full of water when Stanley handed her a one-way ticket back to Laurel, Miss.

Would Williams have approved? I don’t think it really matters. Eccentrically funny, van Hove’s interpretation gave Blanche no room for exit, caught as she was not only by Stanley but also by a peevishly spoiled sister, Stella, and her nearly psychotic momma’s boy lover, Mitch.

For the new “Cat,” Allen uses Williams’ preferred, bleak ending in which Maggie negotiates with Brick by hiding his booze. In most productions, Brick is so inebriated as the curtain falls that Maggie might as well be talking to a corpse. But not this “Cat.” Here, she may not have a chance of winning his love, but I’d bet the whole plantation she’s going to have his baby.

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