PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Dividing the Plantation, With Scarlett Claws
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Scarlett Johansson.
As that old philosopher, Mel Brooks, once almost said, it's good to be the star.
How else can you account for the fast, almost turnaround revivals of Glengarry Glen Ross, which closes Jan. 20 at the Gerald Schoenfeld, and the third Broadway revival in ten years of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which opened Jan. 17 at the Richard Rodgers, other than the fact that they star Al Pacino and Scarlett Johansson, respectively, and those are the plays they felt like doing? It's like the passing of the star torch. The former "hottest ticket in town" is giving back to the new "hottest ticket in town."
With Johansson entering the playing field, "hottest" has a distinct sensual spin. Maggie the Cat is back in business in this fifth revival of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize comedy-drama, which, in the retelling, is starting to look like "The Pollitts Family Picnic." Although the angel of death hovers over the magnolia bushes to be sure, the piece has a rather buoyant, life-affirming spirit to it and always did seem like it was on the brink of breaking into song. All our old friends are waiting for us — "spastic colon," "mendacity," "poontang," "no-neck monsters" . . .
Now, in its sixth Broadway life, Cat actually has a card-carrying, Tony-winning choreographer (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Tony-nominated musical director (How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) calling its dramatic shots.
Officially, Rob Ashford is making his play-directing Broadway debut with this production, having had some success along those lines in London — and with Williams as his guiding spirit. He directed an Olivier Award-winning Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire over there (Rachel Weisz), and then his Stella in that production turned into his Olivier Award-winning Anna Christie (Ruth Wilson).
Johansson, with a Tony of her own (for her first Broadway outing, in a featured role in 2008's A View From the Bridge), has met him on equal footing over the charged battlefield of Big Daddy Pollitt, a Mississippi mogul who has returned from the hospital to his plantation for his 65th birthday party, basking in the bogus good-news that his cancer is nothing more than a "spastic colon." But his offspring are hip to the true verdict, their metaphorical knives out to carve up the estate.
She wanted to do the role the minute she read it — "I think, because I was terrified by it. I didn't know how I could do it, but I felt I maybe could have a take on it. I think when you read a piece that is that challenging, it's wise to take a crack at it, y'know."
The Southern accent came easily for her, she said, and she begins the play with it in a nonstop rant about her under-foot nieces and nephews (the aforementioned "no-neck monsters"). "We had a couple of wonderful dialect sessions. I think all of us were kinda playing off each other. Plus, the dialogue sounds better with that accent, you know what I mean?"
In this tug-of-war over the Pollitt wealth — while first-born Gooper and his white-trash wife, Mae, are marshalling forces like sonofabitches, her character Margaret is not only holding up her end but also her hard-drinking hubby, Brick, who's after that elusive click that will at last allow him to forget the affair she had with his friend, Skipper, who committed suicide when he couldn't quite rise to the occasion.
All but two of the principals Ashford hired have done some musical theatre — a consideration that eluded him until it was called to his attention. "I hadn't thought of that," he admitted, "but I think a great actor's a great actor. I think one thing we maybe should do is shake it up here and not say, 'Oh, no, she's a musicals person so we're going to have them do that.' I do think an actor's an actor, and I hope people think a director's a director. If you're good at those skills, you get an opportunity to do both. I'm thrilled I got this chance, and I thank Stuart Thompson [the lead producer]."
His affinity with Williams was inevitable, he figured. "I'm a Southern boy. I grew up in West Virginia. A lot of people don't think that that's Southern, but, believe me, it's Southern. My mom's here tonight. Go talk to her. Early on, I just seemed to understand what Tennessee's life was like — what it's like to be a gay man in the South."
One small signature: this is probably the first time the "no-neck monsters" form a diagonal chorus line to sing their birthday greetings to their grandfather, but he covered his trail with some ragged choreography for them. "That was the point. We wanted these kids to be kids, and I really felt like they should feel like they're Mae and Gooper's. I thought that was important. The fact that they could sing or dance was so secondary. It was just that they had to be good little actors and had to feel like they were a part of this family because they're the next generation. That's what Mae and Gooper are putting forward to run Big Daddy's 28,000 acres. I felt like it was so important — Big Daddy said, 'They're all little Maes and Goopers.'"
The ghost of Skipper which haunted the play's previews — and the Broadway message boards — has vanished without a trace, and without an apology from Ashford.
"It was just something we were trying. It felt like Skipper was such a huge part of the play. Every single character in this play talks about Skipper, and I thought it would be really useful for the company — and the audience, maybe — to see who Skipper was so everyone thinks of the same person, and I thought it was very important to give the image of Skipper as not effete but as another Brick. "I have to say it was something from Day One that we were all working with. You can ask anyone within the production, in previews the thing we worked on the most and changed the most was Skipper — where he came in, where he went out, how he was lit, what he did, how long it was there, how short it was there — trying to gauge just right, just so.
"What we decided in the end — or what I decided in the end — was, given the reality of the love triangle involving Maggie and Brick and Skipper, to simplify an extremely complicated relationship. The relationship of Brick to Skipper or Maggie to Skipper was an extremely complicated one back in 1951. Today, there's something about putting a guy up there and you go, 'Okay, Brick, just choose. You want Skipper, or you want Maggie.' That simplifies something that was complicated, and that's why, in the end, I felt that it was better for the play not to see Skipper."
Benjamin Walker has landed from his recent Presidencies (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer") on crutches and in a stupor as the tormented Brick but is happy to be here. "I like him because he struggles with communication and affection," the actor said. "I think everybody can relate to that, and he struggles with it in a very genuine way. He's not self-conscious. He's just trying to connect the same way we all do. It's a very complicated character and a very beautiful, complicated play, but I am surrounded by an amazing cast, with Rob Ashford at the helm. I get my towel on, and my job's pretty much not to screw it up."
From the Devil in The Seafarer to Big Daddy, Ciarán Hinds seems be stuck in the D's on Broadway. "Yeah, absolutely — like Desperate," he cracked. It must have been a pretty wide net that Ashford threw to come up with an Irishman for Big Daddy. "We met in London about a possible job there two years ago, and I was committed to something else, and he very kindly asked me to step up again, and I was free. It's great to be asked up to it, but you have to step up to it and do it. In the end, you have to just put everything away and go to work. So I got to work, and I worked and worked and worked, and so, when something releases, you get comfortable with everybody else together. It's about the whole. It's not about the individual but the whole."
Big Mama literally stumbles into the play, but Debra Monk can't remember who came up with that hilarious bit of business. "I think it was all of us. You know, you try these things out." She has done a remarkable job of physicalizing the character, moving about the stage like a rough, rural woman, which Big Mama is, of course. "You put the heels on, you walk around in them — we worked on a raked stage from the very beginning. Part of it was all that and the words and the room and all that."
Meryl Streep topped an exceedingly starry night in the theatre, but, being mother-in-law to the leading man, kept her usual low profile and skipped the party at Chelsea Piers. Refugees from a sweltering Southern drama were welcomed with mint juleps.
The chef there had laid out quite an extensive Southern spread: barbequed pulled pork, cornbread, blackened catfish, Cajun bayou chicken, southern peach chutney, collard greens, corn pudding, fried green tomatoes, all-American salad. For dessert: lemon squares, apple cobbler, Mississippi mud chocolate, banana pudding parfait.
I thought I saw Ghost Skipper wafting about the party, but it was Harvey Evans, still riding a cloud from his 75th birthday, showing no signs of showing down.
Death of a Salesman Tony nominee Linda Emond gave Hinds a big hello after the show. They were Texas marrieds in a 2008 movie called "Stop-Loss" and developed a mutual fondness for tequila. She also said attention must be paid to who she's been filmmaking with of late. Heads up, Mr. Ripley: "I just did two films back-to-back with — are you ready? — Spike Lee and Terrence Malick. How cool is that? One in New Orleans ['Old Boy'], and one in Austin, TX ['Project 5'] — one week and then the next week." "Do the Right Thing" v. "The Tree of Life" — they don't come much more polar.
Kicking up their heels with some abandon: Mamie Gummer, wife of the leading man, dressed in a skin-hugging red that matched her lipstick (a beaming vision, I'm telling ya), sometimes with little sis, Grace Gummer, dressed all in black save for a necklace of red hearts; Matt Bomer of "Nip/Tuck" and "Magic Mike"; Bertie Carvel and British producer Kit Plaschkes; chronic Tony nominee Victor Garber, now of "Argo," next of TV's "Deception"; Ari Graynor, gaily wrapped in a Picassoeque clash of red, white and black, on the arm of one of The Performers she recently performed with, Daniel Breaker, who's breaking in a new act Jan. 28 at 54 Below ("I don't have a name for it. Everybody keeps asking me what the name is. It's some Stevie Wonder, a lot of R&B, a few little chestnuts"); Tovah Feldshuh, who has a name for her 54 Below gig Feb. 7-9 (Tovah Feldshuh: On, Off & Now Under Broadway) and is threatening to sing more than one song from Sarava and even stuff from Brainchild, a show written by Michel Legrand and Hal David, produced by Adela Holzer, that was supposed to open in 1974 but never got out of the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia.
Also: food diva Ina Garten; the Broadway-initiated Jonas brother, Nick; the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Shadow Box, Michael Cristofer, who shared A View From the Bridge with Johannson on Broadway and is now of TV's "Smash" (or, in his case, "Splash"); Paul Dano; the happily wedded, always working Dylan Baker ("Zero Hour" and "The Good Wife") and his good wife, fresh from The Great God Pan, Becky Ann Baker; Chandler Williams of "Person of Interest" and the new "Zero Hour"; Mary McCann, late of "Person of Interest" herself; Grant Aleksander with Sherry Ramsey; Atlantic Theater Company kingpin Neal Pepe, about to start rehearsing Broadway's Hands on a Hardbody — he's also presenting, at Atlantic's main stage, Carol Kane as Bette Davis in a new Craig Lucas play, helmed by Pam MacKinnon.
Then, there were Frank Grillo ; married actors Jon Patrick Walker and Hope Davis (the nice and nasty gossip-columnist of "Newsroom" — more to come, thank God); Sarah Paulson, who gave good Golden Globes carpet this week (for "Game Change"), now into stage introspection for Talley's Folly with Danny Burstein at the Laura Pels; Carrie Preston; superagent George Lane; "Grey's Anatomy" star T. R. Knight, finishing up his sixth episode on "The Good Wife" ("I have a movie coming out this summer, '42,' the Jackie Robinson story. I play the traveling secretary for the team. Chadwick Boseman, who plays Jackie, is fantastic"); Gregory Mosher, who directed Johansson in 2009's A View From the Bridge, and now is casting The Guardsman for a Kennedy Center presentation that will start June 1; Elizabeth Rodriguez; Brit directors Matthew Warchus and Michael Grandage; La Scala Ballet/ABT principal dancer Roberto Bolle.
And finally: Cass Morgan, an ex-Dinette like Monk, with director John Doyle, who'll bring their Pump Boys and Dinettes to Broadway right after he finishes his Off-Broadway Passion; Sam Gold, fresh from directing the Broadway Picnic this week and now deep into The Flick Off-Broadway, with playwright-wife Amy Herzog, who's also OB bound; Holland Taylor, there for costumer Julie Weiss (who did her Ann costumes), was chomping at the bit, dying to begin her show on Texas governor Ann Richards at the Vivian Beaumont: "I want to get pass the opening into the open seas"; Jessica Hecht, soon one of The Assembled Parties on Broadway; Lily Rabe with actor-director Pedro Pascal; the funny Tracey Ullman; Cabaret Tony winner Ron Rifkin; Doubt Tony winner Adriane Lenox , who'll be leading the big Cotton Club Parade to Broadway this fall; A Doll's House Tony winner Janet McTeer with Joe Coleman; cabaret's royal pair, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey; producer Scott Landis and wife, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall; and director Walter Bobbie, who just finished a run of Terrence McNally's Golden Age at Manhattan Theatre Club and is returning to acting next week for an episode on "The Good Wife." Bobbie will helm the reading of a new David Ives play, Saint Simone, about French philosopher Simone Weil, in about a month at CSC — "and I'm very happy to be here with Rob [Ashford]. We first met in the Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes. He was the dance captain, and he put me into the show."
Playbill Video met the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stars on opening night.
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