Scarlett Johansson on a Hot Tin Roof

01/18/2013 12:20 PM |

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Big Daddy Pollitt’s house may be situated on 28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Nile valley, but the audience gets the sense it’s a swamp—chocked and overgrown, heavy with a wet heat that begs to be peeled off and shed forever. The fog that settles seems less an evening mist than a Stygian presence, the ultimate stage for a play that begins with a lie about death being avoided and ends with a lie about life being created. A new revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sounds like the kind of thing that’d be more prestigious than incendiary, pairing a familiar play with a bankable star (Scarlett Johansson) and counting on the innate quality of the work and workers to carry it into drama. But unlike its slack Broadway neighbor Glengarry Glen Ross, this update taps into something primal and raw. It still feels vital.

To get the big question out of the way, Johansson is compelling as Maggie the Cat, though she’s unlikely to make anyone forget Elizabeth Taylor’s near-definitive take on the immortal character. She’s much sharper in the second and third acts, when both the actress and character are dwarfed by Tennessee Williams’s colossal clashes of ego and emotion, than in the emotional and exposition-heavy first. Screaming that she has gone through a “hideous transformation” that left her hard and frantic and cruel, Johansson doesn’t, as Taylor did, show the cracks of desperation that Maggie is then able to seal for her emotional manipulations.

But the story really belongs to Maggie’s dismissive husband Brick, or at least as much as it can belong to someone so uninterested in engaging with the world—he’s crippled both physically and mentally by attempts to recapture the sweet bird of his youth. Actors playing the never-sober or fully clothed Brick run the risk of flat stoicism or pure hammery. Productions of Tin Roof are built on their Bricks, and this one finds a powerful foundation in Benjamin Walker. Previously the charismatic anchor of the sorely missed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, he seethes with intensity and dangerous physicality. You can’t take your eyes off him. (Ciarán Hinds plays Big Daddy in casting that is not so much inspired as inevitable.)

It’s remarkable still how skillfully Williams writes in both drama and metaphor. It’s not subtle—Brick’s disablement is the first lesson of Symbolism 101—but the cumulative effect is staggering. These remain some of the most vivid characters in American theater, reciting some of its best dialogue. Director Rob Ashford lays clear the play’s wounded heart and gothic horror, and when Big Daddy’s miserable family is offstage they moan and scream to be let in like demons looking for bodies to possess. Make no mistake: this is hell.