Randy Goodman

After bouncing between top directors and watching a string of marquee-name actors circle and then withdraw due to scheduling conflicts, producer Stephen C. Byrd's long-gestating project to mount an all-black "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway seemed to acquire an air of doom. But the venture has come together as a sexy, starry entertainment, its artistic shortcomings likely to be overshadowed by its commercial strength.

After bouncing between top directors and watching a string of marquee-name actors circle and then withdraw due to scheduling conflicts, producer Stephen C. Byrd’s long-gestating project to mount an all-black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway seemed to acquire an air of doom. But the venture has come together as a sexy, starry entertainment, its artistic shortcomings likely to be overshadowed by its commercial strength. While Debbie Allen’s inexperience as a director shows in pedestrian physical staging with a tendency toward heavy-handedness, she lucks out where it most matters — with her powerhouse cast.

First things first. For anyone wondering what revelatory new insights are brought by the recasting with African-Americans of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 three-act drama about a wealthy family squaring off for power in the encroaching shadow of death, the question is moot. The reflections on mortality might take on richer spiritual resonance out of the mouths of black actors, and Williams’ poetically salty dialogue might acquire different rhythms, but the interpretation is essentially unchanged.

It does, however, show that with only minor excisions to the text, approved by the Williams estate, this indestructible American classic can be made accessible to a broader ethnic casting pool. By virtue of its history, the play’s evocation of the South does seem redolent of the 1950s. But while a black Mississippi Delta cotton plantation owner might not fit that time frame, the design choices of Allen’s production fudge the period just enough to make anachronism a non-issue.

One of the surprising characteristics of “Cat” (like “The Glass Menagerie”) is the way its focus shifts depending on the production.

Most stagings tend to revolve around Maggie, the feral beauty fighting to protect her position in the clan despite an alcoholic, possibly gay husband who can’t stand the sight of her, and grasping in-laws eager to stake their claim on the estate. Others, like the 2003 Broadway revival, are dominated by dying patriarch Big Daddy, in that case due largely to the towering quality of Ned Beatty’s performance next to wan leads Ashley Judd and Jason Patric.

The heart of this revival (and coincidentally, its top-billed cast member) is Brick, the laconic former pro-football star wrestling with questions of repressed homosexuality following the death of his beloved teammate, Skipper.

Simmering with disgust at the hypocrisy and greed of the volatile figures all around him while seeking only to withdraw into his bourbon bottle until the “click” in his head brings peace, this is the play’s most self-contained role. So it might also be argued that it’s the most difficult. Casting an untried stage actor as Brick was a risk, but Terrence Howard delivers. It’s an understated performance that taps all the quiet, sleepy-eyed charisma of his screen work while also accessing the lacerating wounds of a man forced to confront emotional questions he’d rather ignore.

The central second act is largely a two-man bout in which Big Daddy, empowered by the false assurance of a clean bill of health, goads Brick into addressing the roots of his alcoholism, causing him to respond by revealing the truth about Big Daddy’s inoperable cancer.

With James Earl Jones giving magnificent life to the cruelty, the ribald earthiness and the unexpected tenderness of this blustery self-made man, the production achieves the rare distinction of an entirely credible and deeply felt father-son bond at its center. The two men’s shared distaste for mendacity seems to derive less from experience than from similarities that run in their blood. There’s evident love between them that outweighs both Big Daddy’s hardness and the wall Brick has constructed around himself.

Phylicia Rashad’s Big Mama also is a stirring figure, fluttering about in desperate denial of her empty marriage and impending widowhood. Like her husband, this is a woman of formidable passions, her expansive maternal nature unable to prevent her loving Brick more than her oily first-born, Gooper (Giancarlo Esposito).

Rashad’s restless body language here stands in contrast to the more poised command of her recent Broadway work in “A Raisin in the Sun” or “Gem of the Ocean.” She’s tremendous at showing how a lifetime of absorbing hurt has not quashed her love; watching her cower beneath the blows of Big Daddy’s cutting dismissal is heart-wrenching.

As Maggie, Anika Noni Rose is sleek and beautiful, her creamy skin poured into Jane Greenwood’s figure-hugging dresses and the obligatory iconic satin slip. Preening and posing playfully through the first act, she strongly outlines her refusal to accept defeat to Brick, ignoring his dogged detachment, his cool warning glances and even his violent lunges.

Sliding her legs up the bedpost while arching her back with feline sensuality, she’s a feisty woman fully aware of her assets, justifiably certain of her charms and resolved not to see her status diminished to its former modesty. Rose’s interplay with Lisa Arrindell Anderson as Gooper’s equally calculating wife Mae crackles with bitchy antagonism.

But while her Maggie pays lip service to her fears regarding the “hideous transformation” that’s made her become hard and frantic, Rose never fully conveys the panicked ferocity of a cornered animal. And in the third act, when Maggie’s steely determination prompts a rash and potentially humiliating lie, the actress loses rather than gains power. She seems just a little too naturally soft to sell this indomitable character’s resilience.

However, some uncertainty in one of the central performances is not the production’s significant failing. Its chief weakness is Allen’s mechanical direction, her draggy pacing and cheesy devices like punctuating each act with a saxophone player wandering across the stage blowing bluesy notes. We get it, sad and sultry.

The tricky balance between naturalism and florid theatricality in Williams’ writing has undone many productions and Allen stumbles in a too-literal execution of that dichotomy. The director’s often maladroit blocking also is not helped by Ray Klausen’s awkward design. The single set of a stately but unlived-in bedroom backed by semi-transparent walls that reveal the balcony and exterior columns beyond, plus a clumsily used anteroom off to one side, looks inelegant and artificial. And William H. Grant makes one prosaic lighting choice after another, tirelessly italicizing the monologues by isolating them in spotlights.

While the production hums along on star power, it’s too bad there’s not a fully developed visual imagination at the creative helm to match the intuitive skills of its actors.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Broadhurst Theater; 1,131 seats; $96.50 top

Production

A Front Row Prods., Stephen C. Byrd presentation in association with Alia M. Jones of a play in three acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Debbie Allen.

Crew

Set, Ray Klausen; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, William H. Grant III; original music, Andrew "Tex" Allen; sound, John H. Shivers; hair, Charles G. Lapointe; production supervisor, Theatresmith; associate producers, Clarence J. Chandran, Anthony Lacavera, Norm Nixon, Sheanna Pang, Beatrice L. Rangel, Jovan Vitagliano, Terrie Williams, Al Wilson; production stage manager, Gwendolyn M. Gilliam. Opened March 6, 2008. Reviewed March 1. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Brick - Terrence Howard Big Mama - Phylicia Rashad Maggie - Anika Noni Rose Big Daddy - James Earl Jones Gooper - Giancarlo Esposito Mae - Lisa Arrindell Anderson Rev. Tooker - Lou Myers Dr. Baugh - Count Stovall
With: Bethany Butler, Marissa Chisolm, Marja Harmon, Heaven Howard, Clark Jackson, Skye Jasmine Allen-McBean, Robert Christopher Riley, Gerald Hayes.

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