Saturday, March 8, 2008

Rose's Turn

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Debbie Allen
Starring Terrence Howard, James Earl Jones, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Giancarlo Esposito

Broadhurst Theater
235 West 44th Street
Performances February 12–June 15, 2008

Terrence Howard and
Anika Noni Rose
(photo: Joan Marcus)
In the current revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed with a steady hand by Debbie Allen, three movie, TV, and stage stars -- Terrence Howard as Brick, Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama, and the redoubtable James Earl Jones as Big Daddy -- are overshadowed by Anika Noni Rose, who steals the show as Maggie the Cat.

Rose demonstrated a formidable stage presence in Caroline, or Change a few seasons ago, winning a well-deserved Tony in the process. But playing Maggie is a trickier task, since the character is equal parts sultry siren, frustrated wife, and schemer. In recent revivals, Kathleen Turner emphasized the sultriness and scheming, while Ashley Judd was almost too genteel in her femininity. Rose, on the other hand, fully inhabits this complex woman in an exhilarating performance that may become the standard by which future Maggies will be judged.

Director Allen’s staging has early jitters, allowing a too-reserved Howard to nearly fade into the woodwork during Maggie’s first-act soliloquy. But Rose, by unselfishly playing off his demeanor, ensures Howard's presence even in his silences. Rashad’s and Jones’s introductory showboating is soon reined in by both performers, who give formidable portrayals of their iconic roles. Rashad assuredly handles Big Mama's big Act III emotions, while Jones, both blustery and subtle, makes Big Daddy's his Act II confrontation with Brick one for the ages.

Allen overdirects at times; her heavy-handed underlining of certain dramatic scenes through the use of spotlights betrays her insecurity over whether audiences will grasp the importance of these moments, and she has the talented saxophone player Gerald Hayes wander in and out of the action to deliver several out-of-place solos.

Compensations include Allen’s exemplary sense of movement, perhaps due in part to her dance background. Watch as Rose curls up on the bed or the sofa during her attempts to seduce Brick, and you’ll see a real cat in action. When Brick’s brother Gooper and his wife Mae, played well by Giancarlo Esposito and Lisa Arrindell Anderson, appear along with their “no-necked” children and several other minor characters, their entrances and exits are marked by a controlled frenzy.

Ray Klausen’s set looks more like a cheesy motel suite than a room in Big Daddy’s mansion, and the central presence of Maggie and Brick’s bed is too blatantly symbolic. William H. Grant III’s magisterial lighting and Jane Greenwood’s evocative costumes are closer to the mark.

A word on this version of the play: The beauty of Cat is how its secrets are gradually revealed through understatement, because of the era in which it was written and first performed. For a 1970s revival, however, Williams added certain obscenities to the script. These are included in this production, and most are spoken by Big Daddy, although his infamous elephant joke is missing. These passages mar the elegance of the writing; but much of that elegance remains, thanks to the fact that Debbie Allen and her cast are up to their titanic task.

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