Kevin Sessums | New York | News | Review | Tennessee Williams | Terrence Howard | Theatre

On the Stage: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Adding Machine, Parlour Song

Cat

GuestbloggerKevin Sessums last reviewed Crimes of the Heart,
Sunday in the Park with George, and November
for Towleroad. You can also catch up with Kevin online at his own blog at MississippiSissy.com
.

Mendacity is the word that Tennessee Williams — probably smiling to himself every time he typed that first syllable into his typewriter — strikes like a discordant bell at the height of his soap-opera-as-masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s the word that Brick, the closeted alchoholic heart of the play, throws at his father, Big Daddy, when trying to explain to him why he’s turned to the bottle. Indeed, mendacity is at the very heart of three wildly different productions I’ve seen lately.

Cat2Let’s start with Cat, director Debbie Allen’s African American production of the play. I went to a recent matinee with an open-mind regarding the rejiggering of Williams 1955 play in order to fit it into the black experience in America. And yet no rejiggering was really needed. Allen did seem to update it to a hazy idea of the 1970s with her costume choices and hair styles and the tacky nouveau-riche interiors. But the play works remarkably well with African American actors — or at least the African American actors she cast. This production is certainly on a higher level than the one that opened a few years ago on Broadway to disastrous reviews which starred Ashley Judd, Jason Patric, Ned Beatty, and Margo Martindale. Judd and Patric seemed lost in their roles but Beatty and Martindale as Big Daddy and Big Mama were magnificent.

I’ve seen my share of Cats. My first year living in New York in 1974 I saw Elizabeth Ashley give her now legendary portrayal of Maggie the Cat opposite the Brick of Keir Dullea. Fred Gwynne (yes, Herman of the TV show The Munsters) played Big Daddy and Kate Reid his wife. In 1990 I saw Kathleen Turner make her Broadway debut with a stunningly sexual Maggie opposite a boring Daniel Hugh Kelly (yes of the TV show Hardcastle and McCormick) as Brick. Charles Durning played Big Daddy and Polly Holiday (yes, kiss-my-grits Flo from the TV show Alice) played Big Mama. In 1976 Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner starred in a television version that, even with Sir Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy and Maureen Stapleton as Big Mama, was painful to watch. A later television version in 1985 with Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones restored my faith in the play. Rip Torn played Big Daddy in that production and the great Kim Stanley tore my heart out as Big Mama.

Cat3I’m sure most of you have seen the 1958 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as their most beautiful selves. Dame Judith Anderson was oddly cast as Big Mama and Burl Ives, recreating his portrayal of Big Daddy in the Broadway production, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Big Daddy. The film itself lost out that year to Gigi as Best Picture. Others in the original Broadway production were Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie (yes, Miss Ellie of the TV show Dallas) and Ben Gazarra as Brick. For you trivia buffs, Cliff Roberston was Gazzara’s understudy. Mildred Dunnick played Big Mama.

Cat5All of that is to say, I’m a bit of a Cat fanatic so I’m happy to report that Allen’s production at the Broadhurst Theatre is a good introduction if you’ve not been as lucky as I to have ever seen a stage production of the play, which concerns, in real time, the night of Big Daddy’s birthday party when he discovers he’s dying of cancer and all the forms of mendacity that surround him on that night. James Earl Jones as Big Daddy is gruff and touching; his bluster is heartbreakingly rendered in that incongruous way only a great actor can summon when an array of emotions are all put on display at the same time. The second act in which he confronts Brick is the highlight of this production. Terrence Howard, making his stage debut, is not only amazingly sexy in the role — just listen to the women and some of us men in the audience audibly swoon when he makes his entrance — but is able to to convey the real anger and confusion at his core in a role that is maddeningly passive the way that Williams wrote it as if Williams was uncertain himself of what he thought of the character and the character's choices in life because at that time in his own life the issues that Brick was dealing with were so close to to him.

Cat4Phylicia Rashad (yes Claire Huxtable of the Bill Cosby Show) overacts a bit in her role as Big Mama but Big Mama herself, let’s face it, is a bit of an over-actor. It’s her way of coping. Anika Noni Rose who was so great in both the stage musical Caroline, or Change and the film version of Dreamgirls, acquits herself admirably as Maggie. She is a consummate actress but not yet a fully mature one so that Maggie’s hunger - sexual and material and emotional - seemed forced at times. But because of her musical background, she handles the first act aria of a soliloquy with remarkable aplomb.

Three quibbles. For some reason Allen has inserted a strolling saxophone player needlessly at the start of the play and between the three acts. Lisa Arrindell Anderson as Mae, Brick's sister-in-law, is giving one of the most archly awful performances I've ever witnessed. And Allen, who has failed to rein in Anderson, has pointed up the comedic moments of the play so that when Williams is at his most touching or his characters are at their most cruel, the audience has already been conditioned to laugh. It felt at times as if I were sitting in the audience of one of those many television shows I’ve mentioned.

T T T (out of 4 possible T's)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

***ADDING MACHINE

There’s nothing television-like about the musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s expressionistic play, The Adding Machine, now at The Minetta Lane Theatre. Adding Machine (the The, like any semblance of sentimentality, has been jettisoned for this production) has transferred to New York from the Next Theatre Company in Chicago where it won a passel of Joseph Jefferson Awards, that city’s equivalent of the Tony. It’s caused a buzz in theatre circles here as well.

Continued AFTER THE JUMP...

AddingmachineThe play served as an inspiration to young Tennessee Williams when he wrote an early work in 1941 which seems quite influenced by Rice’s dramatic treatise on the treachery of capitalism. Titled Stairs to the Roof, it finally had its premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1947. Like The Adding Machine, Williams’ play concerned robotic-like workers stuck as cogs in a larger impressionistic wheel formed by the mendacity of corporate America, depended on a deus ex machina, and had letters as its characters names instead of numbers as Rice labeled his. There is also an overlooked 1969 film of The Adding Machine, Rice’s most famous play — some might say that Street Scene is more famous — which starred Milo O’Shea as Mr. Zero, Phyllis Diller — yes, Phyllis Diller! — as his wife, and the great Samuel Beckett interpreter, English actress Billie Whitelaw as Mr. Zero’s secretary and lover, Daisy. Any film able to contain Diller and Whitelaw in the same frame is worthy of a Beckett play itself.

Am2Adding Machine is beautifully performed by all concerned — yet doesn’t quite seem to reach its aspirations as a modern day Weill opera. (Weill himself chose Street Scene to musicalize.) Composer and co-librettist Josh Schmidt and Jason Loewith, who wrote the libretto with him, have done an amazing job, however, combining many musical styles into a creepy mishmash suitable to the source material. And director David Cromer has cast the show with an art director’s appreciation of faces. Looking at the actors and actresses onstage one feels as if one is seeing photographs from the 1920s come to life. Joel Hatch as Mr. Zero is a blank-eyed wonder as the murderer, Mr. Zero. Cyrilla Baer opens the show with an atonal-like aria that grates and yet grabs the heart. But the true star of the evening is Amy Warren as Daisy. She is as wonderful a singer as she is an actress. She is adamantly present onstage, her odd looks as compelling as they are sexual. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was as if Miss Piggy were channeling Lotte Lenya.

T T T (out of 4 possible T's)

Adding Machine, Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York. Ticket information here. (photo: carol rosegg)

***PARLOUR SONG

ParloursongYou’ve got one more week to catch the fugue-like Parlour Song by Jez Butterworth at the Atlantic Theatre. Beautifully directed by Neil Pepe, it concerns a married British couple portrayed by Chris Bauer and Emily Mortimer, and their mendacious neighbor played by Jonathan Cake. Butterworth is kind of a resident playwright of the Royal Court, three of his previous plays having been staged there — The Winterling, The Night Heron, and Mojo. The Atlantic staged wonderful and visceral productions of those last two plays here in New York. Yet Parlour Song — maybe its very title is a hint about this — is not visceral at all. There is a quietude about the domestic desperation it puts on display for us. I appreciated it — the staging, the language, the acting — more than I was moved by it. Some of its imagery was stunning yet at other times it seemed as if Butterworth had overplayed his metaphoric hand. Go and judge for yourself if you’re a theatre buff. It is certainly worth catching before it closes. Cake, staking his claim as New York’s newest leading man, once again doffs his clothes for his growing fan base here in New York. Bauer is brilliant in displaying the sharp anguish that keeps surfacing in his pudgy body. And Mortimer is a marvel. She dangerously channels a middle-class housewife’s ennui into a lacerating sensuality. She’d be great as Ruth in the next revival of Pinter’s The Homecoming.

T T 1/2 (out of 4 possible T's)

Parlour Song, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

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Comments

  1. Hey Kevin, Welcome back. Great review. Loved Phylicia Rashad in it. Don't know if u saw Dead Man's Cellphone with Mary Louise Parker but it was great.

    Posted by: daveynyc | Mar 25, 2008 4:54:03 PM


  2. Factual Error: Burl Ives didn't win an Oscar for the film version of "Cat on a hot tin roof"...he won an Oscar in 1958, yes... but for "The Big Country," not for COAHTR.

    Posted by: JoshEV | Mar 25, 2008 5:03:30 PM


  3. Nice piece, Kevin. I bought your Mssissippi Sissy today, looking forward to reading it on vacation next week!

    Posted by: wisebear | Mar 25, 2008 5:35:19 PM


  4. I love your reviews Kevin, did you by chance review The Seafarer by Conor McPherson? I saw the play recently and wondered what you thought of it. I was mesmerized by the play and the acting.

    Posted by: Michael | Mar 25, 2008 5:55:50 PM


  5. I've seen Cat in spanish,in english and in the movies.I would not fly to New York to see it with a black cast but I will fly to New York to see Porgy and Bess with a white cast.I wonder if any producer has the "cojones" to put on such a production.He'll probably be hung (as in noose) in Time Square.

    Posted by: Oscar | Mar 25, 2008 7:32:40 PM


  6. This has nothing to do with racism, but I don't understnd putting black casts in shows where there would not historically be black people. Would there have been a very rich black plantation owner in the 1950's in the deep south? I don't think so.

    It reminds me of when Cicily Tyson was in "The Corn Is Green" on Broadway, a play about an English schoolteacher in the 18th century. Of course the fact that there never would have been a black woman teaching school in England at that time in ostory didn't stop them from producing it, but it was a flop.

    Posted by: don't get it | Mar 25, 2008 7:43:27 PM


  7. @DON'T GET IT

    You may want to take another look @ American history. Sure, there were very few rich black people but there were some. There actually have been wealthy black people in very small #s since pre-civil war days. Most of whom were planation owners in the deep south.

    Posted by: Brandon | Mar 25, 2008 10:13:11 PM


  8. This show totally ROCKS! Check out blogs related to returning shows at Richromances.com, there are many hollywood celebs and beautiful people are dating and chatting~~~I am so exciting about it.

    Posted by: sssloawrence | Mar 25, 2008 10:19:12 PM


  9. THe success of this revival goes to show what an Absolute Master Tennessee Williams is. His art has outlived all the snipings of his peevish homophobic detractors, and he will be performed as long as humans have breath. I have no doubt he would have been delighted to see "Cat" with an all-black cast.

    I consider myself extremely lucky to have seen Tennesse himself perform in his chamber play "Small Craft Warnings." Among his co-stars in that production, Candy Darling. Needless to say he adored her.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Mar 25, 2008 11:33:16 PM


  10. Don't Get It - The play has been transfigured to be set in the 1970s. At least that's what Kevin mentions in the second paragraph.

    I want to know if the play has kept the homosexual aspect or if it's gone with the film's ending of Maggie and Brick having lots of sex and making babies. If there's something that would be intriguing about making the cast all black is how they deal with the queerness of the story.

    Posted by: Glenn | Mar 26, 2008 6:06:24 AM


  11. It is sooo maddening that shows (and thier original actors) do not come here to Cincinnati. Very rarely do they do so. I doubt I'll see this production unless I take a weekend excusrion to the Big Apple.

    Posted by: Cincinnati NAMjA | Mar 26, 2008 9:04:55 AM


  12. Kevin, I have to disagree with you. I thought the all Black production of "Cat" did not work. I saw it twice because I love the play and wanted to give this production a fair chance. Updating a play, however, must be done carefully and with respect to the playwright's original vision. That neither appears to have taken place in this particular production is what ultimately failed to produce a satisfying theatrical experience for me.

    There were several reasons contributing to this failed production but chief among them is that Tennessee Williams' plays are time, place, and culture specific. Removing them from their settings makes the language and situation anachronistic. It sabotages the poetry of Williams' word choices.

    As a point of comparison, I saw an existentialist production of "Streetcar Named Desire" set is a soviet-style Gulag that stripped the very essence of the play at the out-start. There was no descent in madness there and, similarly, there is no ascent into recognition in this "Cat".

    The actors, with the glaring exception of Terrence Howard's weak performance, were acceptable but it appeared to me that they were playing in different productions of the same play. Ms. Raschad and Mr. Howard were appearing in a sitcom and movie versions, respectively. She played far too broadly and he played too internally, as if each shot were a closeup of his admittedly handsome face. Looks alone, however, may carry the actor in a movie but they do not suffice on stage. I always enjoy Ms. Rose in any performance, and she was able to reach back to her legit theatrical roots for the correct level to pitch her character, but she was undone by the varying levels of intensity on stage at any moment. Mr. Jones was magnificent but we have come to expect no less. I would have preferred to see him in a color-blind production where his astonishing vocal range and timbre would not have overshadowed everyone else. (For example, I thought the recent color-blind production of 110 in the Shade, starring Audra McDonald, among other black actors, was beautifully rendered without the need to "update" the production to another time, place, and culture.)

    Ultimately, the blame for this uneven production rests with Debbie Allen. Every choice she made was wrong, from the incongruous sax player, to the tacky (and not in a period-perfect way) costumes and set. Ms Allen consistently produces cringe-inducing spectacles. Her production numbers for the Academy Awards were notoriously tasteless: cartwheeling bigots for "Glory," anyone? She appeared to have brought no discernible directorial vision to this endeavor. Everyone on stage appeared to be doing whatever they chose without the leavening agent of a good director. My biggest criticism of Ms Allen's direction is her choice of the least satisfying of the four extant conclusions of this play. The unresolved homosexual aspects of the play are minimized by her choices. I think that was intentional on her part. The play simply petered out without any growth in the characters understanding of themselves or the audience's understanding of the characters.

    Unlike you Kevin, I pity those whose introduction to the magnificent work of art that is Tennessee Williams' "Cat" is this production. They would rightly wonder why this play is considered an American classic. Too bad that you did not see the Mark Lamos directed production of "Cat" that was part of the Tennessee Williams festival at The Kennedy Center a few years ago featuring George Grizzard (Big Daddy), Dana Ivey (Big Mama), Mary Stuart Masterson (Maggie) and especially Jeremy Davidson (Brick). That was one of the finest nights that I have ever spent in forty years of attending live theatre.

    Posted by: rudy | Mar 26, 2008 9:51:22 AM


  13. "...are time, place, and culture specific."

    But, RUDY, almost all Hollywood film adaptations of Mr Williams' plays didn't adhere to "time specific". But many of them are now considered classics. Specifically, "Cat" with Taylor & Newman was set at the current time (1959?). Also, now that I think of it, the screen versions of "Night of the Iquana", "Sweet Bird of Youth" and "The Fugitive Kind" didn't take place in the same time period set in the plays.

    Oscar, white entertainers did black face for years, so that's nothing new. Remember, Al Jolson? How about an all Republican version of "Spring Time For Hitler And Germany"? You can see it at their convention this summer.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Mar 26, 2008 10:08:40 AM


  14. Derrick from Philly, You are correct that the film adaptations of Williams' oeuvre are considered "classic" films but they are not half the experience of seeing his plays--without the cuts imposed upon Williams, especially exorcising the homosexual undertones--in a faithful live theatrical production.

    These, of course, are artistic choices. In my opinion, the choices made by the film directors, Kazan especially, did violence to the plays when made into films. They are lesser works of art than they could and should have been. That is my chief criticism of Ms Allen's production. It could have been so much better. As it stands, it is not worthy of the underlying material.

    As for Oscar's snide comment, an all-white production of "Porgy and Bess" would be an artistic abomination because it would be disrespectful of the material. Deliberately substituting all white performers would create inherent and insurmountable artistic dissonance. A color-blind production, however, would be a different matter, and then, in my opinion acceptable, but then there would be accusations of stereotyping or caricatured performances.

    In the hands of a visionary artist, classics can be "updated" by changes in time, place, and culture. Unfortunately, Ms Allen is not such a gifted director.

    Just my opinion; that is what makes an audience.

    It is all about respecting the material. Classics can indeed be updated, see, e.g., "Romeo and Juliet" wondrously transformed by consummate artists into "West Side Story"; see also "Carmen Jones," a jazz take on the opera "Carmen".

    Posted by: rudy | Mar 26, 2008 10:50:14 AM


  15. ^5 Derrick from Philly on your caustic and all too accurate comment re: Springtime for Hitler and the Repub convention.

    Posted by: rudy | Mar 26, 2008 10:54:02 AM


  16. Thanks for your response, Rudy. I forgot about the fact that most Hollywoood film adaptions are inferior to their original source...inferior, in terms of the original intent of the playwright or novelist...or televison writer. LOL.

    When you get thoughtful responses, you learn--even me. Thanks.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Mar 26, 2008 10:56:25 AM


  17. Unfortunately I can't recall the rest of the cast very well, but in the 1980's the McCarter Theater (based in Princeton, NJ) performed this play with JoBeth Williams as Maggie. She did a fine job with the role!

    Posted by: RedCedar | Mar 27, 2008 6:23:28 PM


  18. Debbie Allen seems to be a strange choice for this material. I believe the last thing she did was the masterful direction of Fantasia's life story. At any rate, Terrence Howard looks very good in terrycloth or nothing at all.

    Posted by: MHK | Mar 28, 2008 1:23:09 AM


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