Lean on Me, Brick! Debbie Allen’s Cat Is Exuberant, Flawed, Feminine

Terrence Howard’s fallen golden boy is the most broken and uncompromisingly drunk portrait of Brick I’ve seen. Mr. Howard is, of course, the handsome Hollywood star of Crash, and when we first glimpsed him onstage at the Broadhurst Theatre taking a shower behind a transparent curtain, the screams from the balcony seemed only right. But he’s made a remarkable, chancy contribution as Brick—the more so when one realizes that this is his stage debut.

Mr. Howard captures the self-loathing misery of Brick’s fatal duality of body and soul. This is a portrait of someone who had it all, now committing suicide publicly. It’s the fragility of lives, and loves unfulfilled and found disgusting that goes to the heart of Mr. Howard’s touching performance. Some might consider him too vulnerable and weak as Brick, particularly as he’s playing opposite the magnificent James Earl Jones as Big Daddy—a legendary actor playing a mythic role. But it’s the beloved Mr. Jones who restrains Big Daddy’s bullying, animalistic fury, and ultimately sentimentalizes the central “mendacity” scene.

Still, it’s always a pleasure to see James Earl Jones onstage. If you ever experience in a theater the wave of love for an actor that he received on his entrance, you’ll count yourself lucky. The great man, majestically preceded onstage by his paunch and cigar, was greeted with an ovation. And how good it was to hear his baritone voice delivering Williams’ cruder lines as he wrote them (not as the original director Elia Kazan censored them, to suit more theatrically sensitive days). The director of this production, Debbie Allen, has returned to Williams’ original text like a Shakespeare scholar to the First Folio. Big Daddy doesn’t say “ducking” any more. “Fuck the goddamn preacher!” Mr. Jones booms with such relish that he brings down the house. One forgets how funny the play can be, if they let it.

But how funny, and how broad, should it be? Big Daddy’s 65th birthday scene has always been a potential riot with those dreadful, singing short-necked grandchildren of his—and it’s never been funnier than it is in Ms. Allen’s exuberant staging. As far as I know, this is her first stage production as a director, and she makes a number of elementary mistakes.

No matter that the ambitious idea of an all-blac
k cast performing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an obvious contradiction in terms. (In the Mississippi of the 1950’s, it had to be rich white folk who owned a palatial plantation.) What’s weirdly wonderful is that the concept works. Not so wonderful is the re-setting of the play in some vaguely contemporary time zone, or the broad acting as a whole (including Ms. Allen’s sister, Phylicia Rashad, as Big Mama), or the assists the director needlessly gives the play by melodramatically dimming the lights during three big solo speeches.

On the other hand, if you catch Mark Morris’ new version of Purcell’s 17th-century opera, King Arthur, you’ll see no time zone anyone can pin down or any consistent costume style—except for the one known as camp. And if you take in any Shakespeare in the Park starring Liev Schreiber, you’ll invariably see the lights dim as Mr. Schreiber delivers his soliloquies in a spotlight.

But those productions are called Art, and Debbie Allen’s isn’t. For me, she has produced a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that, for all its flaws and rough edges, is a winning example of truly popular theater. “I’m trying to capture,” Williams wrote in the script, “the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.”

In many ways—some as theatrically blatant as that thundercloud—Debbie Allen has come close to Tennessee Williams’ intentions.