In a year full of mega-hype shows, the only one I really got excited about was the “all black” production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. There’s a lot of reasons why this wet my whistle way more than any star-crossed Hamlet. First, a cast with nothing but African-American (and Afro-Carribean) actors – my God, haven’t I been waiting for that for a long time! And (second) they were in a show by my favorite American playwright! And (third) in a play by this author that I’d never seen before! AND AND AND (fourth) with Voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, in a starring role! Woo! No way was I missing this!
Of course, with big names like Jones and Phylicia Rashad, tickets weren’t going to be cheap – when they finally went on sale I dickered and dickered, trying to find some I could manage. At last I found a deal to get £10 off seats during previews, so I took £20 seats in the Grand Balcony and felt lucky to find them. (I actually got my seats on Lastminute.com, FYI.) And, as it turns out, the Grand Balcony views were just fine, even though the actors were rather small – but since most of the action was centered on the stage, once the woman in front of me finally sat back in her chair, I could see everything.
HOWEVER (note to management) the Novello had SOME NERVE letting about 20 teenagers in 15 minutes into the show, in a dialogue heavy scene that was UTTERLY DISTURBED by all of the clomping and “excuse me’s” and standing up et cetera. The show started late as it was; LATE ARRIVALS SHOULD NOT BE SEATED UNTIL THE INTERVAL. Teach them right and they’ll remember next time; the Novello owes it to the rest of us to respect our right to enjoy the tickets we paid for and showed up on time to use.
The plot is as follows (no major spoilers): married couple Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) – born poor and desperate not to be that way again – and Brick (Adrian Lester) – an alcoholic former football player – are gathered at Brick’s family’s plantation house to celebrate “bootstrapped my way to money” “Big Daddy” (James Earl Jones)’s 60th birthday. Maggie’s trying to find some safe ground between her husband, who doesn’t love her anymore but whom she loves desperately, and Brick’s brother and sister-in-law, who are scheming to remove Brick (and Maggie) from Big Daddy’s will and get it for their own huge brood of children. Big Daddy cuts his birthday celebrations short in order to try to get to the root of Brick’s drinking problem; by the end of the play, everyone’s dealing with the lies they’ve been telling each other and the compromises you have to make in order to get on with life.
While the trope of having this take place within a black family worked fine for me, unfortunately the acting itself wasn’t able to convince me of the “reality” of the story. The weak point was without a doubt Sanaa Lathan, who monologued for nearly all of the first act and left me looking at my watch as the minutes headed toward an hour and the dramatic tension failed to manifest. I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t understand the character herself, because she appeared to be nothing more than a sex kitten who wasn’t getting any. I certainly couldn’t muster any sympathy for her character, and found even less for the actress after listening talk unconvincingly about her (Maggie’s) time as a debutante. Afterwards, J and Amy and I all practiced talking about our time as debutantes, to see if we could do it better. I realize this was a preview production, and Sanaa had taken over from Anika Noni Rose (of the Broadway cast), but it was just bad and dull and enough to make me say to not bother seeing the show.
Adrian Lester, as Brick, was also new to the production, taking over the role from Terrence Howard. My biggest problem with Lester was that he just didn’t sound the least bit Southern. He sounded like he’d grown up in California. Well, no, this wasn’t my biggest problem with him – he also just seemed to be going through the paces, not in a way appropriate for the role of an alcoholic, but in a way that made me think he hadn’t really got into his role, either. Though he was generally rather flat – or silent – he really came to life in the long scene in act two in which he and Big Daddy thrash out just what has gone wrong with Brick’s head.
Jones himself tended to be a bit to comic and heavy in his role as patriarch, lacking the casual fluency at rudeness that the character needed to come together, but he was an expert at playing cat and mouse with his character’s beloved son – for me, this scene was the heart of the whole play and the section that made me not feel like I’d totally wasted my evening on a dud show. Unfortunately, Phylicia Rashad also failed to hold up her end of the sky; even though her Big Mamma is a lesser role, her upset at Big Daddy’s rudeness just wasn’t convincing.
I always wonder if TV and movie actors really get what it takes to make a role work on stage; this evening made me feel like, too frequently, they don’t. This seems to be less of an issue for English actors, who (despite frequently biffing American accents) tend to have pretty good training on the stage no matter where they earn their fame in the end; but my countrymen let me down on this evening. I just can’t think it was Mr. Williams; his later plays are often heavy handed, but this is from his golden era and I expected nothing but the best. I guess I’m going to have to go back and rent the movie so I can have another opportunity to see the text performed and see if Williams can be redeemed in others’ hands. Tonight, though possibly worth the £20 I spent, was too limp and unconvincing for me to feel anything but disappointed. The heavy handed lighting design (MUST we see the overhead fan every time someone has a “moment”), the pathetically literal sound design (Brick does not need to be accompanied by football noises while talking about his past glories) … it all makes me think responsibility for the failures of this show must fall squarely on the shoulders of director Debbie Allen. With such a long run scheduled (it goes until April 10th), I do hope the performances improve. Otherwise … wait until a better version comes by. This cat fell off the roof long before the three hour running time was over and it did NOT land on its feet.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on November 25th, 2009. Opening night is December 1st. A review for the Broadway performance can be seen on the New York Times‘s website. The considerably more positive West End Whingers‘ review is also available. I side with the Times on this one.)