The review of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in the June 18 Style section gave an incorrect telephone number for the Kennedy Center box office. The correct number is 202-467-4600. (Published 6/19/04)
No matter how slinky the actress in the sexy white slip might be, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is Big Daddy's play. For confirmation, look no further than the stage of the Eisenhower Theater, where George Grizzard's snarling and virile performance as the profane patriarch of a rancid Delta household gives the Kennedy Center's production of this Tennessee Williams potboiler a sterling, startling core.
With a lordly Grizzard as his waspish standard-bearer, director Mark Lamos allows the drama's insidious plume of malice to ooze out all over. The three hours you spend with Williams's poisonous clan do not exactly pass in a whirl; "Cat" is much too talky for that. But the very savory thing about this evening is the very bad taste it leaves in your mouth.
Dana Ivey is the foolish, self-deceiving Big Mama here, and her utter defenselessness at the force and venom of Grizzard's attacks is so pathetic it's comic. (Have you ever come up against someone whose fury is of such magnitude that all you can do is laugh in shock and disbelief?) Grizzard's short-fused Big Daddy cuts magnificently through the mounds of baloney that get shoveled at him in this play about greed and mendacity, and the act of him bullying Ivey conveys a merciless truth about the acid that can flow when love drains away. Their encounters are like outtakes from a wildlife video, the alternately terrifying and poignant stalking ritual between predator and prey.
The fine emotional latticework of these seasoned pros does not come as a great surprise (though Grizzard's seething redneck seems a remarkable stretch for an actor recalled for more urbane roles). If their contributions are of a piece with distinguished careers, the revelation of this production, the latest addition to the center's "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival, is the young actor playing Brick, the former football star who drowns his homoerotic guilt at the liquor cabinet. Jeremy Davidson conjures the world of hurt in which Brick languishes in an admirable balance of petulance and stoicism. He's the very rare Brick who is able thoroughly to open a window on the man's wounds without dissipating his enigmatic aura, the notion of a Brick who quietly self-destructs over an unbearable truth.
These vibrant portrayals would seal Lamos's production as a singular event -- it's far superior in any case to the recent Broadway staging -- were it not for one unfortunate bit of miscasting. It's sad to report that the accomplished Mary Stuart Masterson is less than a sublime fit as Maggie, the sensuous conniver frustrated by Brick's apathy and fixated on the dying Big Daddy's fortune.
Masterson was aces as another disappointed wife, the spouse of Antonio Banderas's Guido in the recent Broadway revival of the musical "Nine." But her Maggie, though pretty, offers few of the right moves. Her body language and affect are too contemporary for the 1950s Dixie vixen she's required to play; the difficult and protracted first act in the bedroom, in which Brick withdraws further and further into himself the more desperately Maggie tries to reel him in, feels lifeless. Masterson runs cold, not hot. "I never could keep a finger off a sore," she says, but you get no vivid sense of a Maggie who effortlessly gets under the skin of others, or for that matter, feels luxuriously at ease in her own.
The second of the three acts is where this "Cat" develops its claws, and it's no accident that it coincides with Grizzard's entrance. He sets the tone for the production as powerfully as Ned Beatty did in the past season's deeply flawed Broadway mounting. (Masterson's steely interpretation is a cut above the wispy Maggie of Ashley Judd.) Grizzard's performance works from the get-go, from the coarse moment he lands a fat, lascivious slap on Masterson's fanny. The first act is an intimate portrait of one bad marriage; the second act reveals the bitter emptiness of the union of Big Daddy and Big Mama, and hints at the shallow if fertile malevolence of the play's third couple, Brick's scheming brother Gooper and his wife of the plastic smile, Mae.
As Gooper and Mae, T. Scott Cunningham and Emily Skinner are a beautifully realized pair of bloodless vultures, circling as the smell of mortality rises from the doomed Big Daddy. (Mae, expecting her sixth child, is costumed by Jane Greenwood in a pink maternity suit that makes Skinner look hilariously like a walking sofa.) The temptation of the actors might be to caricature the nastiness and avarice, but under Lamos's astute guidance Cunningham and Skinner play them as dully domestic, which only adds to their evil mien.
Gooper and Mae's five offspring, the kiddie menagerie that childless Maggie memorably labels the "no-neck monsters," are portrayed as a gleeful quintet of grotesques. You get one dose of them and think: boarding school. The irritation they leave in their wake, rampaging across John Lee Beatty's elegant bedroom set, is completely earned. And the garish headdresses they wear and noisy cap pistols they insist on shooting off in people's faces feel like ideal evidence for a future case of justifiable homicide.
The no-neck monsters are the boldest indication in the drama of Williams's contempt for domestic tranquillity. Though Big Daddy is dying of a cancer that no one has the courage to truthfully confront him with -- the most accurate epithet anyone spouts in the play is "Liar!" -- it's family life that seems carcinogenic. No gathering could match the clan's joyless spirit more completely than Big Daddy's birthday party. How right it feels when Grizzard walks disgustedly over to the cake and douses the candles with a glass of champagne.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is, in fact, a dyspeptic swipe at familial honesty and conviviality, and Lamos's production makes this point more emphatically than any you're likely to see. By the time Maggie perpetrates her final, ingenious deception, the one that defeats Gooper and Mae, giving Big Daddy a hideous shred to hang onto and her a crack at a big payday, the play's ugliness is plain to see. Every fraudulent nerve in this house of rotting relationships has been exposed, and every hope of decency has been dashed.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Mark Lamos. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound John Gromada; hair and wigs, Tom Watson. With Harry A. Winter, Brian Reddy, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Jeorge Watson, Nathan Pratt, Lexi Haddad, M. Justin Hancock, Erin Elizabeth Wall, Caitlin Redding. Approximately three hours. Through July 4 at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4700 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.