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First Nighter: Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Revival Not Hot But Tinny

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When word got around during the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof previews at the Richard Rodgers that for the revival director Rob Ashford had decided a ghost never specified by Tennessee Williams should wander through the action, the resulting theater community hubbub led to some creative-team rethinking. Result: successful ghostbusting.

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't less visible ghosts haunting this embarrassingly misguided event -- among them the ghosts of actors Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, Burl Ives, Mildred Dunnock and director Elia Kazan from the original 1955 production and Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Judith Anderson, Ives again and director Richard Brooks from the 1958 movie version.

The most agitated specter buzzing around Christopher Oram's ludicrously over-sized set is, however, playwright Williams, who was famous for rethinking his works long after he'd seen them produced and, indeed, never seemed satisfied with the ending of this work -- his 1974 fade-out being the one in use here. Nonetheless, it's a safe bet he would never have gotten around to Ashford's ectoplasmic addition.

Much more likely is that very little Ashford brings to his interpretation would have pleased Williams. Okay, Williams' ghost might have conceded that the thrumming power of the play he wrote can still be detected. There's no denying the potent first-act effect Maggie (Scarlett Johansson) has as she schemes to jolt crutch-reliant, ex-football-player/husband Brick (Benjamin Walker) from his alcoholism for the sake of conceiving a baby. Thereby, he'll put the couple in good inheritance favor with cancer-ridden Big Daddy Pollitt (Ciaran Hinds).

The same dramatic tension takes hold in the impassioned second-act confrontation Williams hammered out between overbearing father and agitated son when Big Daddy engages with Brick about the homophobic underpinnings of that compulsive drinking. The reason for the unceasing imbibing -- Williams reveals in his three-hour examination of how truth and lies shape family relationships -- is Brick's recollections of deceased pal Skipper. Skipper's the fellow whom family members secretly worry was, in today's parlance, a friend with benefits.

(FYI: It was Skipper's ghost who was exorcised from the current proceedings -- along, naturally, with the unlucky actor playing him.)

But though the pair of meaty scenes are as hot as tin under an intense Southern sun, too many don't sizzle -- despite the good work of players like Emily Bergl as snooping Sister Woman and Victoria Leigh as one of Sister Woman's no-neck brats.

The explanation for the missteps rests in part but not solely with Ashford. For starters, he doesn't keep Johansson from losing the momentum she works up early on. Following the forceful beginning, she spends too many of her later sequences looking as if Maggie the Cat is tiptoeing across a cold tin roof.

Nor does Ashford see to it that the for-some-time bare-chested Walker consistently conveys the unrelenting disgust he claims to harbor for Maggie's -- and the rest of the family's -- behavior. Furthermore, the thought that Brick and Big Daddy would tussle on top of the center-stage brass bed during their harrowing confrontation would be hilarious if it weren't so thoroughly wrong.

More surprisingly, Ashford doesn't even appear able to bring his characters on stage with proper panache -- something presumably covered in Directing 101. When Johansson enters, he fails to take into account the applause she's guaranteed to receive, so that her opening no-neck-monsters-related line -- on which the humor of the next several lines depends -- is lost. Half a scene later, when wrapped only in a towel, Walker enters from the off-stage bathroom -- through which door Maggie has been aiming her jeremiads -- he should make an impact. He doesn't. Hind's second-act introduction is also a sizable ho-hum.

Only Debra Monk, as a generally effective Big Mama, gets the opportunity to burst through a door with dramatic flair. This Big Mama is also supplied with a fan -- was it costumer Julie Weiss' idea -- that she uses for a few moments so that at least one of the characters indicates the heat of the hot-tin-roof environment.

Making Ashford's myriad gaffes worse may be the Johansson casting. No blame to her, of course, but possibly her marquee value in a limited run that must quickly recoup the investment has required placing Williams's classic domestic drama in a house far too large for it. This may account for Ashford's constantly having cast members prowl the edges of the set to give the impression the entire expanse is being used. The consequent harm done to emotional impact is impossible to gauge.

(Three years ago, Ashford directed a commendable Streetcar Named Desire at London's far more intimate Donmar Warehouse. And while the subject of Williams treatment is on the table, it ought to be mentioned that unnecessary tampering was done for the last Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie and that in the recent Chicago version of Camino Real, Williams was an inserted figure. The time for a moratorium on this sort of fiddling has come.)

Throughout Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick talks about the "click" that occurs when he's swallowed enough liquor to feel any alleviating peace. Once again here -- as the script stipulates -- the longed-for click never happens. This outing, the production resolutely doesn't click either.