'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof': Scarlett Johansson is sexy but it's not enough

scarlett johansson in cat on a hot tin roof
Scarlett Johansson is sexy, with just the right amount of desperation and sass, as Maggie. Benjamin Walker is sculpted and aloof enough as Brick.

Ciaran Hinds is boisterous as Big Daddy, and Debra Monk is heartbroken as Big Mama. And all of that is as it should be. 

Sadly, it is not enough for the revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hat Tin Roof" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre until March 30.

The play just never ignites. All performances, including those of the manipulative Mae (Emily Bergl, Broadway's "A Touch of the Poet" and TV's "The Good Wife"), and her husband, Brick's overlooked older brother, Gooper (Michael Park, Broadway's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and TV's "As the World Turns"), are good.

The set, costumes and sound effects are fine. It is all fine, sometimes scraping good, for just under three hours. But fine is not quite enough.

In a day when audiences all too often respond with an automatic ovation, this does not elicit one because it's missing essential heat.

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Stepping into the frigid winds overtaking Times Square Tuesday night, the question of heat is on my mind. Why doesn't this catch fire? Johansson oozes sexy. Yet, just like what Brick needs -- his brain to click, to feel the effects of the alcohol -- this never quite clicks.

Johansson, though, seems confident as Maggie, a role immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film. She's a cash-poor society girl who marries the younger son of one of the South's richest families. Maggie deeply loves and desires her husband.

Only Brick is too busy drinking to love her. He is too busy trying to forget the love of his life, his best friend and football teammate, Skipper, who died. Brick insists their love was pure (his word) and grows hysterical when anyone suggests that they were lovers.

The well-known story is set on the night of Big Daddy's 65th birthday. The night before, while drunk, Brick tried to leap the hurdles at the high school track and instead broke his ankle. He's in a cast and on a crutch.

Brick doesn't care about the party or about Maggie. He doesn't care about inheriting the 28,000 acres of rich farmland or his father's $10 million. He doesn't care that his brother and sister-in-law are trying to scheme him out of his share of the inheritance. Or that he is both parents' favorite son. Brick just does not care.

The first act belongs to Maggie. Johansson holds the stage well, laying on a thick Southern drawl and never losing it. It's a tremendous amount of dialog, really a monolog, interrupted only by others responding to her. And she pretty much forces that with Brick.

So does his mother, but it is with his father, in the second act, that features the most angst. Their wrestling on the floor, Walker turning red, unable to admit the truth to himself and to his father, is raw and riveting.

But much of this rendition does not reach those heights. It wasn't quite five years ago that an all African-American cast starred James Earl Jones as Big Daddy and Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama. 

What's surprising, besides how recent that last revival was, is how great the actors in this cast have been in other productions. Walker was captivating as the lead in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Monk stole the show in "Curtains." Johansson, better known as a movie star, won a Tony for her debut Broadway work in "A View From the Bridge." 

Director Rob Ashford has had huge successes as a choreographer and director of musicals including "How to Succeed" "Promises/Promises" and "The Wedding Singer." This, though, falls short of the drama that bleak family ties, unrequited love and the depths of this play's key word, "mendacity," than it should.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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