Thursday, May 06, 2010

Ashland Theatre Note: The Best Cat

Ashland's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the best rendition of that old chestnut that I've never seen. This actually isn't saying a lot: I always thought the original movie version was a mess, under the affliction as it was of Hayes Office prurience and the wretched miscasting of the so-frequently-miscast Paul Newman. The more recent, with Rip Torn and Tommy Lee Jones was interesting but strange, as Torn tried to figure out how to play an understated Big Daddy and Jones tried to figure out how to respond (I never saw the original stage version, but Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara did sound like the right casting).

So it's a low bar, but the Ashland's rendition was impressive on its own terms--in particular Danforth Comins, who accomplished what has always seemed to me like a near-impossible acting task: try to make something interesting out of young Brick, whose objective in life is to turn himself into a nullity. Brick spends the whole of the first act--and a good deal of the remainder--with clipped, half-sentence responses, designed to put the lid on anything remotely like human connection. Comins has emerged for me as one of the genuine stars in the Ashland firmament--successful with a whole spring of unappealing characters. I'd count Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well; Coriolanus; Cassio in Othello, and Orlando in As You Like It. I'm beginning to think this might be intentional on his (or his director's) part: anybody ought to be able to make something fun out of Mercutio, say, or Benedick. Win with these unwinnable parts and you have something really to be proud of.

Stephanie Beatriz as Maggie did herself credit with a character who must be daunting in a different way. It must be a bear to learn in the first place; she must have some of the longest uninterrupted speeches in the standard stage repertoire. And she's got to do it in some kind of southern drawl. Beatriz' drawl sounded like it was carefully practiced, but practiced. Craftsmanship is to be admired, but real craft is making them forget the craft, and I don't think she ever got quite to that point. Incidentally, I see by the blurb that she went to Stephens, which I had thought of as a natural breeding-ground for girls like Maggie: I wonder if she was playing her sorority sisters?

Michael Winters as Big Daddy had his handicap: specifically, that anybody who plays this part will fall under the shadow of Burl Ives, the original role-he-was-born-to-play avatar of the part (this may well explain why Rip Torn went out of his way to come up with an approach so different). Winters gave it salty energy with a lot of humor and just a touch of menace: you've got to give him a lot of credit, even if he never quite escaped the sway of his great ghost.

A more general point: I take it that Cat is the one play people are mostly likely to remember of Tennessee Williams these days? Moreso than Streetcar Named Desire, which did so much to define his reputation in his own lifetime? I suppose I can see why: heaven knows it has energy and humor and pathos. But the structure doesn't strike me as quite successful. The issue of homosexuality fits naturally into the context, although I'm not sure Williams brings it off quite as successfully as perhaps he would have hoped. In the end, the play is more about talk--a lot of it, pretty good talk--than it is about character or action. And if all Maggie needed to do to get laid was to take away his booze, how come she didn't do that months ago?

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