By Stanford Friedman
What more appropriate play to bask in during a relentless heat wave than that steamy 1955 classic by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? This hot and heavy-handed masterwork by our foremost playwright of sexual repression is stuffed with Southern Gothic characters, moral quandaries, exposed thighs, overt metaphors and irritating children. As such, it’s been rewarded with five Broadway revivals over the years. But not until now has there been an Off-Broadway production. Fulfilling the obligation to shake things up beyond the Great White Way, director Joe Rosario and the Ruth Stage theater company take risks, some more successful than others, resulting in an evening of new insights amid a thunderstorm of poetry (“The human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys.”).
Over three acts, we sit and stir as the play’s four main characters have at each other in the bedroom of a sprawling Mississippi estate. In Act One, the beautiful, nervous, childless and long-suffering Maggie (Sonoya Mizuno) fights it out with her beautiful, alcoholic and deeply troubled husband, Brick (Matt de Rogatis). In Act Two, Brick, hobbling on a crutch as a result of a broken ankle and a shattered spirit, tussles and boozes with his lion-in-winter father, Big Daddy (Christian Jules Le Blanc). And in Act Three, Brick’s mother, Big Mama (Alison Fraser), faces a tough truth while new lies and hard acknowledgments by the others set the course for a compromised future.
Rosario stages the action in the present day which, with one big exception, makes little difference beyond modern costumes and a cordless phone. But it alters our perception of Brick. The root of Brick’s remorse is the loss of his beloved college football teammate, Skipper, who died a complicated death. Brick’s feelings for this man were either romantic or the one “clean, true thing,” in his life, Williams’s implication being that the two are mutually exclusive. That mindset, in 1955, soured in a world of societal pressures different than today’s, making this Brick more than ever a victim of his own self-loathing. De Rogatis is excellent in the physically and emotionally complex role, battling through his demons toward an inebriated surrender in his wife’s arms.
As Maggie, Mizuno, a ballet dancer by training making her New York acting debut, is physically the lithe and clawing title character, but gives a rushed performance in a voice that is hard to hear both in terms of its unsteady accent and sheer lack of projection. (The six ceiling fans mercifully cooling the audience are an additional acoustic challenge.) Her reactions smack more of an uncomfortable actor than a miserable spouse.
The most interesting new take on the work is that here Big Mama and Big Daddy are fit and, at times, downright sexy, setting up parallels that weren’t previously visible. Le Blanc, a 12-time Daytime Emmy nominee for his work on The Young and the Restless, is indeed a young-acting and restless patriarch, a grown-up Brick who walks with a limp that matches his son’s. When he confesses that he hasn’t been able to “stand the sight, sound, or smell” of Big Mama for 40 years, it’s quick math to see that Brick is on the same path. And the two both suffer a cancer, quite literally in Big Daddy’s case while his boy’s malignancy is metaphorical if no less damaging.
Similarly, as Big Mama, the always fine Fraser, in a low cut dress and raspy Kathleen Turner voice, is a mature version of Maggie, at the mercy of her men and sporting not a cat’s, but a lion’s mane of big hair. Also turning in strong performances are Spencer Scott as Brick’s brown-nosing brother, Gooper, and Tiffan Borelli as his wife Mae, a perfectly icy “monster of fertility” melting in the heat.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – By Tennessee Williams, directed by Joe Rosario.
WITH: Sonoya Mizuno (Maggie), Matt de Rogatis (Brick), Christian Jules Le Blanc (Big Daddy), Alison Fraser (Big Mama), Jim Kempner*(Doc Baugh), Milton Elliott (Rev. Tooker), Tiffan Borelli (Mae), Carly Gold (The No Neck Monsters), Alexandra Rose (The No Neck Monsters) and Spencer Scott (Gooper). *Austin Pendleton will be joining the company as Doc Baugh on July 25.
Scenic design by Matthew Imhoff, lighting design by Steve Wolf, sound design by Ben Levine and costume design by Xandra Smith. Ruth Stage at The Theater at St. Clements, 423 W. 46th St. 212-239-6200, https://www.ruthstage.org/cat.html. Through August 14. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.