The main question is: What kind of a “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is Scarlett Johansson? The short answer is: This Maggie the Cat is a tiger. But for all that hissing and scratching, not much blood is spilled in this meh revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Although Rob Ashford’s production is great to look at and, quite literally, bursting with fireworks, it’s the kind of beauty that’s mainly for show and incapable of breaking your heart.
The conflict fueling this family drama is a deep-fried Southern version of those ancient mythic battles over the kingdom of a fallen tribal chieftain.
The fatally wounded king is Big Daddy Pollitt (Ciaran Hinds), an immensely rich cotton planter who, along with his vulgar wife Big Mama (Debra Monk), doesn’t know what everyone else does — that he’s dying of cancer. The disputed territory is 28,000 acres of the richest land in the Mississippi Delta. The warring princes are Big Daddy’s two sons, goopy Gooper (Michael Park) and tragic Brick (Benjamin Walker), goaded by their respective spouses, Mae (Emily Bergl) and Maggie (Johansson).
The occasion is a lavish 65th birthday party for Big Daddy, and Christopher Oram has set the stage in a manner befitting nouveau riche royalty. We can only imagine what the rest of the big old plantation house looks like, but the huge, cream-colored bedroom shared by Brick and Maggie breathes luxurious languor: an ornate marriage bed, billowing draperies, a wall of French doors opening onto a colonnaded terrace.
Lovely as it is, the bedroom is more a marital battlefield for the couple, who haven’t had sex in ages, to Maggie’s despair. Brick is furious with Maggie for contributing to the death of Skipper, his boyhood friend and one true (if undeclared) love, and is drinking himself into an early grave — but not before he kills Maggie with the sheer force of his contempt.
The first round goes to Maggie. Johansson makes the bold choice of playing her like the tormented cat she declares herself to be, prowling the room like a trapped animal and furiously spitting out her rage and frustration through the bars of her cage. Johansson is no slumming movie star (the raves for her Broadway debut in “A View From the Bridge” were well earned) and she’s giving a hell of a tough performance here. But she never lets up on this full frontal attack, denying Maggie the wounded feelings that make her human.
Walker pretty much walks through Act One, passing up any opportunity to suggest that there might be a few chinks in the emotional brick wall that Brick presents to the world. But he recovers himself brilliantly in Act Two, turning in a riveting perf in the painfully moving father-son scene in which Brick and Big Daddy disastrously try to be honest with one another.
Although the miscast Hinds doesn’t begin to get a handle on the magnetic vulgarity of Big Daddy, he’s so fully engaged in that same father-son scene that the earth does seem to tremble when the old man is forced to face the truth about himself.
Monk tries her best to seize the scene in which Big Mama has her own shattering moment of revelation. But the timing is off, and for all her shouting, she doesn’t stand a chance against the explosive fireworks and bolts of heat lightning that finally bring this show to its noisy climax.