NEW YORK — Call it genius or call it commercial instinct: Tennessee Williams sure had a knack for catchy titles, and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’’ is one of his most memorable.
But the title character, Margaret, better known as Maggie the Cat, actually recedes from the action for large chunks of Williams’s 1955 drama. It presents a tricky challenge for any actress — one that Scarlett Johansson, who plays Maggie in the patchy Broadway revival that opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, proves unable to meet.
The restless, sexually frustrated Maggie is a role that has long proved to be, er, catnip to big-name actresses: Kathleen Turner, Jessica Lange, Elizabeth Ashley, Natalie Wood, Ashley Judd, and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, who played her in the bowdlerized 1958 film version, which Williams didn’t like.
For “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’’ to really work, an audience needs to be wondering what Maggie is thinking and doing even if she’s offstage or silently looking on while others squabble. It’s vital that Johansson generate sufficient electricity to transfix us during the Maggie-centric first act, so her aura will linger through the play’s subsequent machinations over which son of the Pollitt family will inherit Big Daddy’s huge cotton plantation.
But Johansson doesn’t. The outlines of a fine performance are visible, but not the thing itself. The actress, who won praise for her Broadway debut three years ago in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,’’ doesn’t yet seem to have a fix on the very different rhythms Williams requires, or on Maggie’s tricky blend of desperation, calculation, and determination.
Nor is there much acting chemistry between her and Benjamin Walker, who portrays Brick, Maggie’s alcoholic ex-jock of a husband. Still, Walker (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’) manages to deliver the most fully realized performance in a production directed by Rob Ashford (“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’’) and featuring a cast that includes Ciarán Hinds as Big Daddy and Debra Monk as his wife, Big Mama.
There’s a languid athleticism and sensuality to Walker’s Brick, who’s broken his ankle in a drunken attempt to clear some high hurdles. Hobbling in circles on a crutch, his foot in a cast, Walker moves like a tranquilized panther who’s still capable of one last lethal lunge. The actor projects the core quality Maggie attributes to him — “the charm of the defeated’’ — and he’s physically plausible as a onetime football star who’s given up and is now choosing to live life inside a bottle.
Ashford overdoes the atmospherics; when a heavily symbolic storm arrives late in the play, it rumbles and crashes like something out of “Wuthering Heights.’’ The Pollitt household, designed by Christopher Oram, is enclosed by giant, creamy, billowing curtains. At center stage is a king-size bed, looming like an exclamation point over Brick’s refusal to sleep with Maggie.
He blames her for the death of his friend, Skipper, with whom he may or may not have been in love. When Skipper made a drunken confession, presumably of his own love for Brick, in a long-distance phone call, Brick hung up on him, and he is now consumed by guilt. His father ferociously spells it out: “You! — dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it! — before you’d face truth with him.’’
Truth is a scarce commodity in the Pollitt household. As Big Daddy prepares to celebrate his 65th birthday, he thinks he has escaped the grave himself, but the grim truth of his terminal cancer diagnosis has been kept from him. It’s known, however, by his other son, Gooper (Michael Park), and Gooper’s grasping wife, Mae (Emily Bergl). Pointing to the fact that Brick and Maggie have no children while they have five, and a sixth on the way, these two schemers are maneuvering to ensure that Big Daddy bequeaths to Gooper, not Brick, what he calls “28,000 of the richest acres this side of the valley Nile.’’
In the crucial role of paterfamilias, Hinds falls short. His Big Daddy roars and bellows against the “liars’’ who surround him, but the actor fails to capture the Falstaffian appetites and Lear-like fury that drive this rough-hewn, mean-spirited philosopher/magnate. So Big Daddy comes across merely as a spiteful old man, chomping on human beings as he chomps on his cigar.
Monk, however, is a poignant Big Mama, alternately oblivious and brokenhearted as the man she adores dishes out to her verbal abuse that would make Strindberg cringe.
As for Maggie, well, she suffers a different kind of cruelty from her husband — that of indifference. Yet what Maggie proves willing to say ends up turning the tide in the Pollitt family’s power struggle. What Brick is willing to say to her in return is a different, more cryptic matter entirely.