NEW YORK — As Tennessee Williams understood better than almost any other scribe who ever stared down a typewriter, anger and need are not the same thing. In a lousy marriage — such as the one between Margaret and Brick in Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" — the two get conflated, of course, as anyone who has screamed at a partner in frustration from some unmet desire well knows. But like most of Williams' struggling souls, Maggie isn't annoyed in the way one gets annoyed, say, when one's deal isn't honored or one's plane is overbooked. She and her handsome, athletic hubby are both trapped in a hot mess of pain, unable to mutually twist their bodies in a way that might bring at least one of them some relief.
To put it simply, the unaccountable absence of that understanding is what torpedoes director Rob Ashford's struggling Broadway revival of this fiendishly difficult, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama from 1955. Scarlett Johansson, whose star persona was part of the raison d'etre for this production, looks like a million dollars in designer Julie Weiss' beautiful dress and, unlike so many young movie stars, she has no problem expanding her performance chops to the live theater, booming out a character that has been precisely forged and defined but ill-advisedly contained. One can discern this Maggie's unhappiness — Johansson is in an energetic rage throughout — but not the vulnerability that causes a woman who well knows she is beautiful to throw off her very dignity and, well, beg for attention. Hardly walking on scorching tin, this Maggie doesn't really seem to need anything from anyone; you don't believe that any of those around her could stop her present trajectory, which feels entirely of her own design.
Yet more curiously, Benjamin Walker, known around Broadway as a leading man of expansive sex appeal, seems to have decided that the famous sexual ambivalence of Brick is best expressed by the absence of sexuality, when the opposite is not only more theatrically interesting but surely closer to where Williams was wanting to go. Rather than suggest a man whose malaise comes from his longing for another man whom he cannot have, Walker comes up with a young man who has closed himself down to such an extent that his potentially desirable body gets de-sexualized — even thrown around the stage as if he were a rag-doll. And that makes it hard to understand why his Maggie, the woman with the misfortune to desire a beautiful but physically unavailable man, gets so upset about him sleeping on the sofa. For the play to work, there has still to be something there that she wants.
But a clear point of view is absent in this generally confused, low-stakes and halting production — that went through changes and subtractions in its preview period and now seems stuck. It's neither a traditional staging nor a suite of fresh ideas on a great American drama that should both embody timeless interpersonal truths and reflect how much our world is changed, sexually speaking, in little more than a half-century. The huge set, from Christopher Oram, is made up of doors rather than walls and it has an appealing fragility (the front drape has a gauzy, theatrical air, very much in the current mode of Williams revivals), but it also confuses the issues of privacy (or the lack thereof) that pockmark the script. If Brick and Maggie are so constantly visible to Big Daddy, Big Mama and the so-called "no-neck monsters," and if they all share a balcony that belongs to all, then we feel none of Maggie's boudoir frustration and humiliation. Here, she doesn't seem to really have a bedroom.
Ciaran Hinds, the accomplished actor playing Big Daddy, makes laudable efforts to avoid those pernicious Southern stereotypes of crudity and surety, and he has his moments of insight into the co-existence of power and mortality. And Debra Monk — the one actress in this production who reveals her character's palpable inner pain — shows us a Big Mama who understands how nobody wants to be thought of as that. Not really. But Hinds' chops notwithstanding, Big Daddy does not forcefully define a world that can hold neither Brick nor Maggie. And therefore, we don't get the requisite sense of their mutual inability to survive amidst the kind of cultural certainty that Williams so hated.
And the "no-neck monsters " are hardly that; they look rather cute. They're closer to the offspring of Capt. Von Trapp than the ultimate nightmare of the sad-eyed, childless sensualists, sharing a fate they can't avoid.
"Cat on a Hot Roof" plays on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Call 877-250-2929.