The Geffen Playhouse inaugurates its newly renovated theater in Westwood with a blunt version of Tennessee Williams’ rich family drama that puts forth a crisp energy but sacrifices the play’s languorous lyricism. It’s got the right look — a particularly gorgeous set — but not the right simmering atmosphere. There’s an admirable clarity to its storytelling, but it struggles to mine the emotional depth of the play.
While the capable ensemble, which includes John Goodman as Big Daddy and Oscar winner Brenda Fricker as Big Mama, delivers plenty of strong moments, this ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” still seems to be waiting for a performer to step up and steal it.
There are plenty of opportunities for such stealing, since “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has a plethora of juicy roles, many of which have been occupied by a long list of luminaries. Jennifer Mudge, in her L.A. debut, takes on the role of Maggie, which must rank up there in any list of great female leads. Mudge recently starred in the New York production of “The Pavilion,” a very different slice of theatrical Americana, and it’s easier to imagine her as a Midwestern girl next door than as a sultry Southerner whose charm and beauty have brought her from poverty into the rich surroundings of Big Daddy’s plantation. Still, Mudge has the chops for the part, and she deftly handles the first act in which Maggie talks nearly nonstop.
Mudge is undeniably cat-like, as she and director Gil Cates take the title metaphor a bit too literally. For a time, she even perches herself on the top part of a couch, which looks a lot less comfortable for a human than a feline. This opening monologue, with lots of exposition, is all very straightforward, but not particularly sensitive or nuanced. It’s not until the final act that Mudge really settles into the role in time to deliver the climactic lie, in a play that is all about “mendacity.”
As Brick, the former athlete stuck in an alcoholic stupor ever since the death of his best friend, Jeremy Davidson delivers just the right aggressive nonchalance for the role. It was one of Williams’ contributions to American culture to require of male actors raw and exposed sensuality, and Davidson’s got it. As he stumbles around the stage with his crutch — Brick has just broken his ankle in a failed attempt to relive past glories — we believe that even the fogginess of the liquor only adds to Maggie’s unquenched sexual desire for him.
The central scene for Brick, though, is not with Maggie, but with Big Daddy, and this one is less effective.
From the time he enters in the second act, John Goodman’s Big Daddy creates a problem, as he doesn’t quite bring enough discipline or variation to the part. Both actor and character are dominating figures, and his Big Daddy barks “Crap!” with the best of them. But there’s only a single gear at work when the role requires multiple ones.
Goodman’s best moments are the comic beats. He has very strong timing, and he definitely captures Big Daddy’s boiling impatience. The dramatic moments, though, fall pretty flat, including some very key ones, especially when his character has to come to terms with his own mortality.
Where Goodman charges around the set, Brenda Fricker brings a relaxed stillness to Big Mama. If Goodman’s performance is oversized, hers is a bit too small; she has moments of stark clarity, but this is a rather colorless, unimposing Big Mama.
Perhaps the only one who really gets it just right is Kirsten Potter as daughter-in-law Mae. She brings a surprising believability to a part often used just for comic relief.
In the end, Cates’ gambit here is to bring a contemporary tone to a period play. The pace is always quick, which can be at odds with the Southern drawl built into Williams’ dialogue. This gives the production plenty of pep — and there really is never a dull moment.
And the trappings are strong, particularly John Arnone’s extravagant set, replete with a pink orchid wallpaper scrim that provides a great sense of physical depth.
If Cates allowed the actors to linger just a bit more, particularly early on, they might have more opportunity to enhance the production’s inner life. It’s also possible that the playing will develop dimensions and chemistry during the run that it doesn’t have now. Currently, the production’s entertaining but superficial.