Lost Cat: Benjamin Walker Is a Terrific Brick, and the Play Still Packs a Punch

But Scarlett Johannson is miscast as Maggie

Scarlett Johannson and Benjamin Walker in Cat on a 'Hot Tin Roof.' (Joan Marcus)

Scarlett Johannson and Benjamin Walker in Cat on a ‘Hot Tin Roof.’ (Joan Marcus)

Maggie the Cat doesn’t purr. She barks and snarls.

Scarlett Johansson’s top-billed and awkward turn as Maggie dooms the director Rob Ashford’s take on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Tennessee Williams Pulitzer Prize winner that opened in revival at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last week. It’s a prettily staged production, almost dreamlike, and it features a handful of fine performances. But its central character is off, and so the entire production is adrift.

Ms. Johansson made her Broadway debut three seasons ago in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, in which she gave a muted and convincing performance as a strong girl from the Brooklyn docks desperate to get out from under the thumb of her infatuated uncle. Holding her own against the indefatigable Liev Schreiber, she was terrific, and won a well-deserved Tony Award for her work.

But in Cat, disappointingly, she is overmatched by the role, or at least mismatched with it. Ms. Johansson is a beautiful woman—a bona fide movie star—and yet her Maggie seems drained of the character’s rapacious sensuality and defiant glamour. Williams designed Maggie as the audience’s entry into the play, a charismatic, gorgeous, wounded heroine. In this production, Maggie is pretty but not beautiful; in her bra and slip she seems dumpy rather than sexy, and in her needling of her husband she is little more than a suburban nag.

Not that she doesn’t have some good reasons for nagging.

Maggie, who grew up poor but genteel, is married to Brick (Benjamin Walker) a former football star and the favorite son of Big Daddy Pollitt (Ciarán Hinds), the richest planter in Mississippi. Brick has become an alcoholic, he refuses to sleep with her, and perhaps worst of all, he’s uninterested in competing with his rapacious brother, Gooper (Michael Park), for his share of the family estate.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has all of Williams’s favorite preoccupations: the mask of southern gentility, truth and lies, masculinity, closeted homosexuality. It transpires over one hot, humid, stormy night on Big Daddy’s plantation, “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile,” as the patriarch never tires of describing it. The family has gathered—Big Daddy, Big Mama (an oddly daffy Debra Monk), Gooper, his calculating wife Mae (Emily Bergl) and their five kids, plus Maggie and Brick—to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday and also his clean bill of health, after a cancer scare is revealed to be a mere spastic colon.

But of course not a lot of this is true. Big Daddy isn’t healthy; he’s got metastatic cancer, and the doctors and children are keeping it from him and from Big Mama so as not to ruin the birthday. The big birthday celebration, including a choreographed homage to Big Daddy by Mae and Gooper’s kids—the “no-necked monsters,” as Maggie famously terms them, though in this production all of the children are blondely attractive and perfectly normally necked—isn’t to celebrate the man but rather to angle for more of his estate. Big Mama fawns over Big Daddy, but Big Daddy can’t stand her. Maggie fawns over Brick, trying to re-seduce him, but she has also slept with his best friend, Skipper, who then killed himself. And Brick has become an alcoholic because he’s disgusted with Maggie, disgusted with his own life, and, whether he can admit it to himself or not, because he was in love with Skipper, who loved him too, and who, just before his death, had the courage to say so. Brick rails against the “mendacity” all around him, but mostly he’s contemptuous of the mendacity in himself.

It’s a hell of a play, with gorgeous, intricate, subtle and often very funny language. It’s deep and moving, and still, as many times as you’ve read or seen it, even a bit bracing. All these years later, it retains the rough honesty—the frankness about sex, alcoholism and homosexuality—that no doubt shocked audiences at its debut in 1955.

Mr. Walker makes an excellent Brick, not least because he spends the first act clad only in a towel and yet displays a physique—lean, toned, but not over-muscled—that is credible for his handsome former jock character and thus stands as a refreshing counterpoint to this month’s other midcentury-revival torso in a leading role, that of Picnic’s Sebastian Stan, playing a drifter with a David Barton membership. More than that, he well embodies his character’s lost indifference, his defeated ennui. Brick retains his natural charisma even as he works to drown it, and Mr. Walker manages to be simultaneously compelling and diffident.

Mr. Hinds, as Big Daddy, is a big, loud force of nature. There’s not a lot of emotional shading in his characterization, but there’s not a lot in the character. You can see the drive and ambition that took him from sharecropper to plantation owner, and you can see the bluster that leaves everyone in awe of him. The best part of this Cat is its second act, in the long confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy. It’s the moment when these two titans—two men’s men, attached to but fighting against each other—break down much of the family mendacity, revealing hard truths to each other. It’s also the most honestly compelling and revelatory part of the play.

Mr. Ashford’s direction emphasizes the claustrophobia of this kind of world, with people always invading, servants always hovering, rivals always eavesdropping. “The walls have ears,” both Maggie and Big Daddy say, and the staging makes that evidently the case.

The worst eavesdropper is Mae—“that monster of fertility,” the childless Maggie calls her—a malevolent Machiavelli scheming for herself and Gooper against Brick and Maggie. A former Cotton Carnival Queen, she represents all the bad stuff in the play: a honeyed veneer of sweet propriety overlaying a steely strategic ambition. That, to use Brick’s word, is mendacity. And the ultimate problem with this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is that there’s not so much difference between Maggie the Cat and Mae the Fox.

editorial@observer.com