Art & Science
To cast Scarlett Johansson as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is to risk turning the carefully balanced play into a mere star vehicle, and Rob Ashford's production at the Richard Rodgers Theater walks right up to that line--right up until the moment at which Maggie (and Miss Johansson's turbocharged take on the character) disappears from the stage for a good chunk of the play. And then the play becomes something else entirely, something like one of those clockwork models of the universe that so fascinated the philosophical cosmologists in the years before Galileo: wheels within wheels, everything turning in a kind of perfect balance. Of course, these are wheels of misery, despair, and dishonesty, and the play is a kind of perfect model of an imperfect world.
But what an awful bunch of people these Pollitts are. Brick, once a promising young athlete who later fell into a desultory career as a sports announcer, is mourning the loss of his boyhood friend Skipper, with whom he had a bond that exceeded the bounds of friendship but fell short--if only barely--of a fully consummated homosexual romance. He is estranged from his wife in part because of self-loathing over his own sexual ambiguity, a situation that Maggie compounded by initiating a sexual relationship with Skipper, the subsequent trauma of which was the proximate cause of his death. There is something mysterious in that: Maggie presents herself (and is presented by Tennessee Williams) as the victim of Brick's indifference and cruelty, but it was her betrayal that rendered her domestic situation irresolvable. But that is of course precisely the sort of inexplicable thing that people sometimes do, and it is to Mr. Williams's credit that Maggie's casual disregard for her own happiness and that of her family never seems like a mere plot device, an explaining away of Brick's semi-psychotic funk. There is a largeness to the character of Maggie; she subsumes her words and deeds rather than being merely composed of them.
Brick is portrayed by Benjamin Walker, who is known to the wide world mainly for two portrayals of American presidents, the title role in the musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and in the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The less said about the latter, the better. My opinion of the former has risen since I saw it two years ago (see "The Devil and Mr. Jackson," The New Criterion, January 2011). I find myself listening to some of the songs (and I never have felt inspired to purchase a copy of another musical cast recording), and wishing that I had seen it more than once, which is rare. The thinness and condescension I objected to in the play remain objectionable, but perhaps not as objectionable as I had thought. I am starting to doubt that it is possible to make a work of art about American politics that is too shallow, and in fact Broadway probably would require a radical downward revision of its intellectual standards (such as they are) if it wanted to compete with Washington in the category of banal pageantry. Mr. Walker's Andrew Jackson was a swaggering rock star (in fact, the musical's best and most clever song is called "Rock Star"), but the dipsomaniacal Brick is a very different proposition: a man living life after swagger. Mr. Walker is intelligent and sensitive in the role, and his portrayal of Brick is rigorously unglamorous. It is easy to make a drunkard Byronic and romantic, or, short of that, comical. Instead, this Brick's drinking is a relentless meat-grinder of the soul, ruthless and unsparing. It is a very fine performance.
Overall, the production is better than average, and Miss Johansson is better than average in it. She is occasionally histrionic, but then Maggie is a self-consciously theatrical character. Her accent is impossible to place--indeed, the entire show is marred by the hodgepodge of its performers' deracinated and occasionally cartoonish accents--and there is something about her peculiar vocal emphases that makes it seem as though she uses the phrase "no-neck monsters" (her epithet for her uncharming nieces and nephews) many more times than Tennessee Williams wrote it. …