When “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” premiered on Broadway in 1955, it caused a sensation with its unflinching scrutiny of familial strife, greed, duplicity, sexual desire, and homosexuality. The steamy Pulitzer Prize-winning melodrama, one of Tennessee Williams’ masterworks, has been revived on Broadway several times to varying degrees of success. For many, however, the most indelible version is the 1958 film starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Burl Ives, reprising his Broadway turn.
And now, Ruth Stage is presenting a daring, if uneven revival at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, a “re-engagement” of an earlier run in July 2022. That was the first time the Williams estate had granted permission for the work to be staged Off Broadway.
Directed by Joe Rosario, the production has a novel twist: It takes place in the present day instead of the 1950s. The earlier production, according to the troupe’s creative director, Matt de Rogatis (who also stars as the tormented, bourbon-soaked Brick), may have leaned a bit too hard into its contemporary setting. Some felt the lyrical period dialogue, with references to their cotton plantation, mendacity, spastic colons, and “ten-cent beer” didn’t quite jibe with the modern sensibility.
As I see it, however, the current staging exudes a hazy, timeless air, rather than specifically 2023. Which works quite well given the drama’s universal themes such as deceit, avarice, and mortality.
Matthew Imhoff’s set — a vast sitting room and bedchamber at the Pollitt family estate in Mississippi — is a jumble of decor styles drawn from the past few decades. The phone is a landline with a cordless receiver (they tried cell phones in the earlier run, which proved too jarring). At key moments, the lighting by Christian Specht has been modified to suggest a kind of preternatural dreamscape.
I welcomed the departures from the familiar. Instead of a white cast on his broken ankle, Brick wears a sleek black orthopedic boot. His silk pajamas are updated for maximum sex appeal — a black tank top and slinky lounge shorts that could have been bought at Nordstrom’s. The wooden crutch has been replaced by an aluminum one.
Another bold touch is the nontraditional casting. Wealthy cotton tycoon Big Daddy, played by Frederick Weller, and Big Momma, played by Alison Fraser are not, well, so physically big. But they more than make up for it with outsized, powerhouse performances. De Rogatis is no ordinary Brick. He’s ripped and tatted, and portrays the embittered ex-football hero with a menacing ferocity. One of the strongest scenes finds Brick and Big Daddy facing off, finally having that overdue talk about Brick’s intimate bond with Skipper, who tragically died and may be the root of Brick’s depression.
Robust and stylish in skintight jeans, a full head of dark silver hair, and trim dark beard, Weller’s Big Daddy is a refreshing change from the infirm, portly patriarch evoked by Burl Ives. At age 56, Weller is nearly a decade younger than Big Daddy, who is celebrating his 65th birthday with his family.
“Why can’t exceptional friendship — real, real, deep, deep friendship between two men — be respected as something clean and decent without being thought of as…fairies,” an exasperated Brick says. Which begs the question: Was he in denial of a physical, even romantic attraction to his best bud?
About that crutch. While de Rogatis does an admirable job vigorously hobbling around for 2.5 hours, often balancing a glass full of liquor, the crutch threatens to upstage him and the ensemble. Surely they could have pulled back on its usage.
Courtney Henggeler lends a luscious, feline quality to “Maggie the cat,” although her lilting southern accent is so thick many of her lines are inscrutable.
This is not a pleasant party. It is threatened by the looming possibility that Big Daddy’s cancer tests are indeed positive. His least favorite son, Gooper, and his wife, Mae, connive to elbow Brick aside and gain control of the 28,000-acre plantation. The entire family knows that Brick rebuffs Maggie’s advances in the bedroom. That spark has long fizzled. “I’d be relieved to know that you’d found yourself a lover,” says Brick.
Another inspired shift from other iterations? Gooper and Mae’s five ill-behaved “no-neck-monsters” have been expunged from the cast and replaced by audio recordings. This is more than adequate to convey their obnoxious presence, and to justify Maggie’s disdain for them.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Ruth Stage | Theatre at St. Clement’s | 423 W. 46th St. | $48-$136 | Through Mar. 31 | 2 hrs., 45 mins. with one intermission