When I got wind of an upcoming Off-Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” set in the present day and starring a tatted, ripped actor portraying Brick, a faint alarm went off deep in my frontal lobe. Wasn’t there a strikingly similar staging just last summer?
Then I realized. It’s the same production, sort of. In July, the Ruth Stage company presented the Tennessee Williams classic with a contemporary twist at the Theatre at St. Clement’s. Directed by Joe Rosario, the drama boasted a fresh, unconventional cast led by the smoldering Matt de Rogatis, creative director and producer at Ruth Stage. But the reviews were uneven.
Which should come as no surprise. The 1955 Pulitzer-Prize winning melodrama, centering on bourbon-soaked Brick and ravenous Maggie the Cat, as they spar with each other and Brick’s scheming parents at a doomed birthday party at the family’s Mississippi estate, is an American treasure. With its toxic mix of greed, guilt, sexuality, and mendacity, many fans do not want the cherished story to be tampered with.
When the troupe got a chance for a do-over, they grabbed it. The fearless Rosario seized the opportunity to rejigger the production from the summer. Several roles were recast and pivotal passages were revamped. The time period, while still modern, would be made less specific. The mood would be, well, a bit moodier.
On the eve of their first rehearsal, Gay City News chatted via Zoom with de Rogatis to get the scoop on the reboot. The refreshed show is now back on the boards of the Theatre at St. Clement’s February 24 through March 31. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Congratulations on the latest run of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” What originally attracted you to the project?
Back in 2019, we approached the Tennessee Williams estate to do “The Glass Menagerie” and were surprised when they allowed us to stage it in New York. So we did it and it went very well. As a follow-up, I applied for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on a whim. Miraculously, they granted us the license –– the first time ever that “Cat” was permitted to appear Off Broadway. That was in March 2020. And then all hell broke loose [with the pandemic]. We had to postpone the show five times. Finally, we were able to premiere in July 2022.
Why mount a reboot after a strong run over the summer? Seems like an unconventional step.
Well, I think I’m unconventional and Ruth Stage is unconventional. We knew we had something special, yet that there were elements both onstage and behind the scenes that could be improved. The show was generally well received, though reviews were mixed. We couldn’t help thinking we could get more out of this. The Williams estate was so happy with it they granted us the re-engagement.
Why shift the time period from the 1950s to the present day?
The play’s themes of family dysfunction, infidelity, and mortality are timeless and very much relevant today, and a contemporary setting puts a whole new spin on the story and characters. Previous shows had all been set in the 1950s, but we wanted to update it to 2023. With this production, the lines will be blurred a bit more. We want you to believe in the world that we’re creating. In our last run there were cell phones, but we nixed them because it takes it a little too far into the present day.
Traditionally, it’s Maggie and Big Daddy’s show. But in our production, Big Mama and Brick ended up becoming the central focus. Of course, some people are married to their Elizabeth Taylor bobblehead dolls and refuse to accept anything else. But others were like, “Wow, I thought I knew these characters. This is so different!” Much credit goes to Joe. He felt that if we’re going to stage this again, let’s not deliver the exact same production.
Can you talk about the cast changes?
We recast two of the four principal roles. I’m reprising my role as Brick, and Alison Fraser is returning as Big Mama. Maggie is now played by Courtney Henggeler and Big Daddy is embodied by Frederick Weller. A few supporting roles were also recast. I don’t want to take anything away from our original Big Daddy, Christian LeBlanc. He did a great job and I enjoyed my scenes with him every night. We just wanted to go in a different direction. Fred was very high on the list. And fortunately for us, he thought of it as a bucket list role and jumped on board. I’m super excited to go toe-to-toe with him for an hour each performance.
As for Courtney, her agents submitted her. It’s funny, I was in a meeting with the production team flipping through submissions. And I saw her photo and thought, “That’s Courtney from ‘Cobra Kai!’ I love her on that show. She’d be perfect for Maggie.” And Joe made it happen. Courtney brings a different energy than the previous Maggie did. I think she brings a little more sexuality, which is needed.
I’m a huge sports fan, so I look at it as a sports team. We made a couple of free agent acquisitions, we decided to not re-sign some people to contracts, and we’re going into the new season looking to go deeper into the playoffs. Maybe even win a championship.
You are credited as a producer as well?
We’re very hands-on at Ruth Stage. We don’t hire people to do casting or marketing, we do it all ourselves. And Joe worked his ass off making calls and sending emails and watching videos and TV shows to create a wish list of actors. I have my hand in a variety of tasks –– casting, marketing, PR, production. Even media interviews.
What’s your method to tackling the Brick role?
I’m currently getting a master’s degree in psychology, so I approach my characters from that standpoint. I’ll read books on their disorder. I’ll diagnose them. Nobody writes plays about normal people. Where’s the drama in that? They always write about fucked-up people and situations. Like Brick being a raging alcoholic, for example. I viewed him through a very dark psychological lens, and I think it resonated. And so we shifted the whole production to that angle. Even the lighting is more somber.
Do you think the homosexual slant resonates as strongly in 2023?
Some people have stated that the stakes are lower, and if Brick and Skipper were gay today, they would be widely accepted and could join the LGBTQ community. But I totally disagree with that. Brick is a young man raised in the South, a football hero coming from this wealthy, dysfunctional family. If Brick and Skipper were gay, it would be difficult for them to come out. You can’t so easily say, “Oh, if it was 2023, everything would be roses and they could hold hands together openly.”
Do you think it’s especially difficult for male athletes to come out?
Absolutely. Read Ryan O’Callaghan’s book that he wrote in 2018, “My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life.” He was a closeted pro athlete with the New England Patriots during their championship runs. Homophobia made it impossible to come out. There’s a lot of machismo in the locker room. He wanted to kill himself because he thought he would not be accepted. And when he finally came out, everyone accepted him. But it wasn’t about everyone else. It was about the darkness going on inside of him. We still often hear that movie stars are closeted gay men. They fear coming out would alienate their fan base and hurt their career.
I dismiss the idea that if someone’s gay in 2023, that it somehow makes their life easier. I work in theater, I know many gay men, I’m friends with many gay men. And I know that many went through hell before they came out. They still experience bias. Besides, I don’t think that Brick is a gay character, and even Tennessee Williams confirmed this. Skipper? Yes, he was gay. But that’s the beautiful thing about Brick –– you can play him in different ways, like Hamlet.
Remember, this is a very dysfunctional family. it’s not just about Brick and Skipper, it’s about the will, it’s about Maggie and her infidelity with Skipper. What often seems to get glossed over is Maggie’s part in this whole thing. How many family members have stopped talking to one another because a parent died and there was controversy over the will? This recently happened in my own family.
Do you feel that your portrayal digs deeper into the homosexual subtext?
This production delves deeper into the psyche of Brick, and the possibility of him being gay is just one of many aspects of his character. No character has just one thing going on. Brick comes from a narcissistic family and I consider what that could mean to a person growing up in that environment, the issues he may have developed, the friendships he would’ve made, the people he would’ve dated. It’s so much more than just, “Is he drinking because of Skipper?” I think that Skipper was probably the best friend Brick ever had, almost a paternal figure he could confide in. Because he didn’t get that from his f*****-up family. Brick feels he was complicit in his friend’s suicide and that really eats at him.
Any other special challenges in portraying Brick?
The physical part. I’m still hurt from the previous production and I’m a little worried about this run because I want it to look authentic. I consider myself an intense actor and I know Fred is, which is why I think it’s going to be electric when the two of us are up there. I fall four times a show, 35 shows and 18 rehearsals, for a total of over 200 falls. That’s a lot of bruises. I had a lot of pain and did a lot of cryotherapy. It’s tricky being on that crutch, putting so much weight on the one leg, falling, having to get up as if that leg is broken. It’s a challenge having a drink in your hand the entire time you’re hobbling around on crutches.
Plus, I have to be shirtless for a good portion of the first act and I need to look my best. I don’t want to be looking like “Fat On a Hot Tin Roof.” I did a very strict diet and gym regimen throughout the run last summer. Afterwards, I went on a chicken parm diet and packed on 15 pounds. When I found out the show was returning, I had to lose that weight again. This is the most challenging role I’ve ever done.
What are you really drinking, apple juice?
It’s unsweetened iced tea. But some nights we put actual bourbon in there. I have fun with that. There’s a series of bottles and sometimes I ask the stage manager to put booze in one, and throughout the course of the show I’ll find out which one has the booze. It’s like Russian roulette.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I am especially grateful to Joe Rosario. He runs Ruth Stage with me and is pivotal to the group’s success. I also want to give props to the supporting cast, including Adam Dodway, Milton Elliot, and Christine Copley, who are involved in many facets of this production. It truly is a labor of love.
It’s hard to not be a huge fan of Tennessee Williams. He’s a legend and his stuff is epic. “Cat” is part of the Triple Crown, along with “Streetcar” and “Glass Menagerie.” My hope is that the Williams estate will let us do “Streetcar” next, to complete the trifecta.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Ruth Stage | Theatre at St. Clement’s | 423 W. 46th St. | $48-$136 | Feb. 24 – Mar. 31, 2023 | 2 hrs., 45 mins with one intermission