The Playgoer: February 2013

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

REVIEW: The Good Person of Szechwan

Brecht's Epic He/She: Taylor Mac as Shin Te and Shui Ta.

Taylor Mac is giving the performance of the year down at La MaMa in The Good Person of Szechwan. And unfortunately most of you will not get to see it. This low-budget revival of the Brecht classic (co-produced by La MaMa and the Foundry Theatre) has sold out its one-month run in its 199-seat house and will probably have difficulty extending or "moving" any time soon due to Showcase Code restrictions. (Which I assume was how this was produced* [*update: see comments section for more].) Oh well. Maybe with enough resources and flexibility from Equity, Foundry and La MaMa will some day be able to share with the public this rare American Brecht staging that will not leave you wondering why anyone ever made a fuss about Brecht in the first place.

Until then, I'll do my best to describe what's so special here, starting with Lear deBessonet--a barely-30 director who has been consistently working around the edges of the downtown and nonprofit scenes for at least five years now. I first became aware of her in her first Brecht outing, Saint Joan of the Stockyards at PS122 in 2007. There, too, on a shoestring budget and Showcase Code cast, deBessonet forged ahead with her eccentric but crystal clear vision of a difficult play. What delighted me was not only that someone had successfully resurrected this totally forgotten (and admittedly odd) early Brecht gem, but had also infused it with a totally genuine contemporary American pop sensibility without flinching from the play's politics at all. The key was Kristen Sieh's winning performance of Joan as an honest-to-God happy Christian, an interpretation amplified by a live bluegrass score which situated that religiosity in a recognizable and playable down-home context.

DeBessonet--who has spoken about the challenges of bringing good-faith spirituality into our atheistic theatre culture--may have miffed some Brecht purists for not treating Joan's preaching with snyde sarcasm. But her concept worked because Brecht--while no believer--was himself clearly fascinated with religion, which is why he wrote so much about it in his plays. Even a Marxist must admit and contend with the power of that "opiate of the masses." In Brecht's work--and especially in Szechwan--religion is often the countervailing force to capitalism, just an ultimately ineffectual one. In Sieh's performance, Joan's likability and infectious optimism made her tragic failure at the end all the more heartbreaking.

Szechwan may be a more well known and frequently produced play than Joan. But that doesn't mean it's any easier to pull off. At least in most performances I've seen. This relatively late Brecht drama (as well as the similar, almost interchangeably produced Caucasian Chalk Circle) always comes off in performance as stiff, grey, and interminable "epic theatre" that occasionally tries (with great labor) to be fun. Despite the lively elements in its story, the sheer length and wordiness of most translations--combined with a prevailing tendency to play such a "classic" with the solemnity of Shakespeare--often weighs down what is, at heart, a simple fable, a folk take. What this production does that I haven't seen anyone else do, is strip away a lot of the dead weight (even efficiently cutting many walk-on characters) and restore the folk tale element--even down to childrens-theatre tiny cardboard houses that populate Matt Saunders' outwardly makeshift set. The show plays here with the energy of a commedia farce--further enabled by an almost bare stage of planks, quick-change costumes, and lots of direct audience address (and solicitation). I knew this production had a chance when the play's quasi-narrator, the often-annoying water-boy, Wang, delivered his opening monologue entering down the aisle...and was funny!  Actor David Turner--one of the many eccentric players DeBessonet has populated the cast with--deserves much credit for setting and sustaining the joyous yet caustic tone of the evening.

Speaking of tone, much of it is also supplied by yet another contemporary on-stage band DeBessonet has recruited, The Lisps. Their eclectic score ranges from rockabilly to Motown to garage-rock, constantly bringing the story into the now, even while DeBessonet and her designers always pay winking homage to the story's early-industrial Chinese setting. (Much fun is had throughout with scattered red petals.) As in her Saint Joan, DeBessonet's use of local dive-bar bands reconnects with the cabaret impulse in Brecht's use of music. It helps here that the Lisps' specialty seems to be percussion, used to consistently jarring, stirring, dare I say even "alienating" effect.

But let's get back to Taylor Mac. In case you didn't know, casting a man in the starring role of Shen Tei is not the norm. Shin Tei is a young prostitute who begins almost as a deliberately "hooker with a heart of gold" cliche. She is also one of the great female roles in modern European theatre. But since she spends a good third of the play in the guise of her invented alter-ego, "Mr. Shui Ta," one can see the temptation to cast such a gender-bending male performer as Mac (who has made a career downtown and in cabaret exploring gender and sexual identities in his own devised pieces.) The choice brings up some of the same issues faced when dealing with how all those Shakespearean "breeches parts" (Rosalind, Viola) were all written for boys playing women playing boys! Recent all-male Shakespeare productions (especially by English troupes Cheek by Jowl, Propeller, and The Globe) have reminded us of some of the lost dynamics built into those plays' original casting. (For instance, the men who interact with Rosalind as "Ganymede" or Viola as "Cesario" don't seem like gullible idiots any more.)

Brecht of course did not write Shen Tei for a man or boy, or a queer/trans icon like Mac. But without taking anything away from the fine actresses who have played the role (I still remember Cherry Jones at A.R.T. in 1987!), something special here happens when Mr. Shui Ta appears on the scene. "He" becomes very convincing!  Bursting onto the stage with an almost goosestep authority to a martial drumbeat, dressed as a classic Weimar-era pinstriped and bowler-hat capitalist, Mac makes quite a chilling entrance.

Or should I say, Shen Tei does. Because one thing this casting "trick" reveals is how good an actress Shen Tei has to be to pull this "act" off. (She has to invent Shui Ta to be the ruthless "bad cop" businessman to her more charitable "good cop" storekeeper when she can no longer do good works without going broke.) Obviously it doesn't take only a male actor to play a male convincingly. But rarely have I seen an actress cast in the role who can. (As a female "lead," Shin Te is often lazily cast with either a classic ingenue or a Shavian/Ibsenite "strong woman" who can get one side of the character but not the other.)

Then again, the issue isn't really being "convincing" in any naturalistic sense. Because Brecht deliberately set up this built-in "play acting" in his story in order to model his acting ideals--which called for the performer to both credibly inhabit and comment upon the character simultaneously. (Brecht wants us to see Shin Tei  "performing" her idea of "The Businessman.") Taylor Mac does this brilliantly not because he is a man, but because he is a powerful and (in the best sense of the word) self-aware performer. We see the soul-crushing effort it takes Shen Tei to become this monster. (She doesn't do it as just a lark.) So not only is Taylor Mac good enough to convince us he's Shin Tei; this Shin Tei turns out to be so good an actress that she can convince us she's...well, Taylor Mac!

There is a spellbinding moment towards the end of the first act where this whole Brechtian "genderfuck" comes together and fuels the argument of the play. It's during one of Shin Tei's songs. (Yes, these late Brecht plays are musicals, too. As if they weren't hard enough!) The song is the one that's sometimes translated as "The Song of Defenselessness" (I couldn't catch in this show's version) and in it she rails against the gods for leaving her to shoulder the burden of tending to the poor. But theatrically, Brecht undermines her self-pity by showing her donning Shui Ta's "mask" all the same, even while she claims she doesn't want to. What DeBessonet and Mac (and The Lisps in one of their most aggressively rocking selections) do with these few instructions takes the idea to the hilt. Mac, beginning as Shen Tei, strips off her feminine garments and--all the while singing at full voice at breathtaking speed--begins to don the black pinstriped suit and mustachioed visage of her alter-ego and self-inflicted nemesis. When the song climaxes, the transformation is complete--Shen Tei has become Shui Ta right before our eyes, and not just in clothes. Mac lands immediately in the next scene--in full Shui Ta mode--without even a pause for applause.

Such transformation of character before our eyes was a favorite device of Brecht's. In Galileo we watch the sensible priest who once supported the scientist turn against him in the course of one scene--a scene in which he is enrobed as the new Pope. ("The clothes make the man" must have been a favorite expression of Bert's.) One of Brecht's many challenges to "Aristotelian" conventions was his rejection of "character" as a stable entity. While most playwrights have striven to "develop" characters who are "consistent," even when they are challenged by a cruel world, Brecht saw mankind as utterly mutable given the circumstances. (Marxism, after all, is premised on the primacy of material circumstances in shaping all aspects of our lives.) Hence, in this story, we can't just easily excuse Shen Tei for doing the cruel things she does as Shui Ta. She is changed by the process. Struggle though she does, she has learned to accept "the lesser evil." Her tragedy is not that of a John Proctor, going to the gallows with his "dignity" intact, the way so few of us do in real life. No, like most of us poor souls, she does what she needs to do to survive, no matter how shitty she feels about it.

I'll stop there. Suffice it to say that DeBessonet and Mac's work here did much to clarify this conflict in the play. And "clarify" is the apt word here. Rarely have I seen such a lucid, uncluttered, streamlined staging of one of the Brecht epic tragedies. Think how hard it is to pull off Mother Courage, too. I look forward to DeBessonet scaling that mountain in the near future--perhaps starring the indomitable Lisa Kron, who also appears here, hilariously, in two supporting roles. (Shen Tei's mother-in-law, let's just say, arrives in Sezchwan by way of the L.I.E.) After the sententious "Mother Meryl" in the Park a while back, I would welcome this director's eclectic, irreverent, yet thoroughly text-grounded "Brecht 2.0" remix.

(PS. You can see Mac give an in-studio approximation of his moving closing speech as Shin Tei in the Times' "In Performance" video series.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Playgoer's Rules of Playgoing

You thought attending the theatre was entertainment? It's hard work! But if you abide by the following proscriptions, you will make playgoing pleasanter for you and all around you.

First, dinner.  Always, always eat near the theatre.  I mean, one-block-radius near. There is no more stressful 15 minutes for the serious theatregoer than the time between realizing it's 7:45 and you haven't gotten your check yet and that moment when you are finally, safely ushered to that seat. It's challenging enough to accomplish this feat when you're down the block. But when you have to negotiate five blocks of heavy Time Square pedestrian traffic? Worse, imagine the poor soul who has gotten fleeced into dinner uptown?  You might as well have just sold those tickets on StubHub, pal.

I know this isn't going to make theatre any more appealing to those who already see it as a chore, but...Going to the theatre is in many ways like air travel. Getting there is often the hardest part (especially in a cab), but you have to get there on time. It will take off without you. And , unlike the movies, you can't just wait around for the next show. (Not without paying a pretty price, at least. Neither business is in the habit of giving refunds just because you were late.)

The Dinner Rule plus the Airport Rule together lead to a third rule: do whatever you can to have the tickets--your "boarding pass"--in your hand before dinner. Aside from getting them mailed to you--worth the fee--today you can sometimes even print them at home (yes, like the boarding pass). Otherwise, go pick them up from the box office before dinner. Of course, in order to do that you need to be eating nearby. See Rule 1.

Another (unfortunate) comparison to airplanes is the claustrophobic seating. Both spaces try to pack as many bodies into their finite square footage as possible. So therefore: no carry-on luggage, please. You'll have room on your lap for a coat and/or a purse, but not much else. (And, worse than a plane, no overhead.) If you are unavoidably stuck with a messenger bag, backpack, or shopping bag... underneath the seat! Believe me, there is room under there. (You'll just have trouble standing up because the seat won't flip up.) This is not just to be considerate to your neighbors, who may want to pass you from time to time. This is for your own good. You don't want to sit through a three-hour play submerged in enough gear for a hiking party. Especially if that includes bags that crinkle or crackle. Paper or plastic? Neither!

Obviously this means no big shopping sprees immediately pre-theatre. This may be tough for tourists who go from one "event" to another and don't see the inside of their hotel rooms till midnight. But, tough. Plan the shopping for another day. This is theatre, dammit! (Or see a matinee.)

Yes, coatcheck rooms should theoretically solve this problem. But, seriously, when was the last time you checked something at the theatre?  I gather Broadway houses still have them. But can you imagine the lines?  Still, if they're an option, go ahead and use them. Just be prepared to be the first one there (super-early) and the last one out.

Speaking of "baggage" you tow to the seat... This may surprise you, but there is no rule that you must hold your Playbill in your hand throughout the performance. In fact, please don't. By all means look at it before curtain, but once the show starts, put it away. If you have a bag, it goes in there.  Otherwise your lap--or even the floor!--will do fine. You see, if you hold onto it, the greater the chance you will...well, do something with it. You might drop it. (Which in some spaces makes some noise.) You might start flipping through it, consciously or not. (More noise.) And, worst of all, god forbid, you might start reading it. During the performance. Yeah. Not cool.

Food and beverage: It used to just not be allowed. But now many theatres are so dependent on "concessions" so of course, you may bring that $6 coke to your seat, sir/madam! So we need some ground rules. First, to the theatres: no ice, dudes! I mean, really. Also, please do not sell Peanut M & M's, Jaw Breakers, or any other candy that requires severe mastication. (And don't sell them in little cardboard boxes in which the stray Goobers rattle around!) But even when it comes to smuggling in, audiences need to be careful, too. Many are in the habit of toting plastic water bottles without a second thought, for example. But then they spend the whole performance squeezing that plastic every time they go for a sip. Glass or aluminum may be heavier, but they're quieter.

As for food, there are some foods that are smuggle-appropriate. Obviously, the theatre is not the place to break out your doggie bag of ribs, lo mein, or osso buco.  One of my go-to, no-time-for-dinner fallbacks is the simple bagel and cream cheese. That's just cream cheese, no extras. You can grab one at any deli near the theatre (for just two or three bucks, mind you), wrapped in simple cellophane. Throw out the paper bag and stick in your tote or coat pocket. It's the perfect stealth-sandwich because it's doesn't fall apart, doesn't crunch (no toasting on the bagel) , and you can quietly tear little bites off with your hand if you must sneak a munch. Better yet, eat half just before curtain and half at intermission.

Drinks? Personally I'm a coffee drinker so to maintain my caffeine levels (and who can get through some of today's shows without caffeine?) I like to carry in my bag one little Starbucks "Doubleshot" espresso can. (Or the Illy version.) If you buy it just before the show (many delis now carry this, too) and stash it in your bag or pocket, it will stay reasonably chilled through intermission, when you'll need it. And you can drink it down in two or three sips, so you won't have to worry about storing an open can. (This solves a major problem of intermission "house coffee"--it takes you forever to wait in line to get a cup, then it's too hot to drink, then intermission is over before you've had a sip. And then they don't even let you take it to the seat!  Yes, I'm looking at you BAM...)

Speaking of caffeine, an even better "delivery system" is chocolate espresso beans. I mean, it's coffee and chocolate! I often carry a small pouch around to any "marathon" performances. (It's a long day's journey into night indeed without them, let me tell you...) Many Starbucks have these, too.  But if you're a real Playgoer and you know you'll need a steady supply, go to Trader Joe's and bring home the bulk size tub, from which you can then routinely transfer a handful to a plastic baggie.  How many should you take? People will respond differently to the caffeine kick, but I try not to have more than five at a time.  So having a dozen or so regularly on you (per person, of course) should do you.

Finally, we come to the really delicate subject. Bathroom breaks. It is my sworn goal never to have to use a theatre bathroom. (In fact, it is my goal never to leave the seat once seated, but that's only for diehards.) If you can hold it in, going after the show is a much better proposition. Because during pre-curtain or intermission, there will always be a line. It will always be small. You will never have time. And I'm not just talking about the Ladies', though that is always exponentially worse, and facilities may be even more off-putting. (Especially at many of our Off-Off venues.)

Naturally, the worst scenario is having to go during the performance when you do not have an aisle seat. So barring a medical or ageing condition, this you really want to avoid. (And if that's your condition, get that aisle seat.)

So what to do? It's "Nature's Call" after all, you say. Well each man or woman knows his or her own bladder best. But at the risk of over-sharing, here's my formula: If you're attending an evening show, don't drink any beverage after lunch. Then make sure to relieve yourself just before dinner. (Definitely before you take even a sip of water at the restaurant.) Then, hopefully, you should be good till 10 or 11pm.

(Ah, isn't this what a theatre blog is for? Jill Dolan may be alright, but, dammit, if this kind of insight does not deserve a George Jean Nathan Award, what does!)

I haven't even touched on the numerous noise-offenses we encounter every night from our fellow audiences. The talkers. The toe-tappers. The "repeaters" (reflexively echoing every joke that pleases one). The "breathers" (heavy, that is). The sleepers and snorers (see "caffeine," above). And, then, my favorite, the clothes-fondlers. Often men in wide corduroy who love the feeling of it through their fingers a little too much. Also beware of acrylic coats or leather pants.

One special circle of hell is reserved for not just talkers but that subset who keep talking after the curtain has risen but before any dialogue begins. So hear me now: just because no one on stage is speaking yet does not mean the play hasn't started.  Sometimes that "moving around" the actors do is important, too.

You may have noticed I have not even mentioned cell phones yet. Need I? It's 2013 now. I say if you still haven't learned by now how to turn it off, how to keep it off, how to make sure it doesn't ring again when you have a voice mail, how to not have an excruciatingly poor-taste ring for when it does go off...then we'll just have to take it away from you. That's right. There's no Second Amendment in this case. License and register them, I say, with full background checks. Because in the theatre, my friends, they are lethal weapons.

I know some may say: Playgoer, you are so bourgeois. These codes of social behavior to keep us tethered to our seats, in the dark, only looking forward, uncommunicative with our fellow spectators are, in fact, only a relatively recent trend historically to deaden the live-performance experience, all in the name of some unattainable and dubious standard of "realism." Why not liberate the audience, let us behave like the social creatures we are--such as at sporting events or rock concerts, where we truly participate and respond to the action.

To which I say: yes, these are entirely socially constructed norms of behavior, specific to Western middle-class realist aesthetics and are, indeed, doomed to die out when our techno-indulgent marketplace finally bans silence and long attention spans from our culture forever.

But until then? While we're still paying exorbitant amounts to hear what Scarlet Johansson is saying on stage? Please keep your cell phones off and your Playbills on the floor. Dammit.

(What would you add to The Rules?)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

REVIEW: Clive

If I told you that Ethan Hawke was enlisting playwright friend Jonathan Marc Sherman to adapt Brecht's Baal for him to star in (and direct) so he could sport a Billy Idol 'do, wheeze away at the guitar, and surround himself with scantily clad babes for an intermissionless hour and forty minutes in front of a paying audience... you'd probably say: gee, that sounds pretty indulgent.

And guess what? You'd be right!

"Clive" chewed out by the mighty bear D'Onofrio.
Photo: Sara Krulwiich, New York Times

Not much more can be said about Clive (the re-titled adaptation) that already hasn't been by the first round of scathing reviews.  But I'll just add that mere self-indulgence isn't even the biggest problem with the show. The problem is Baal. Now I'm embarrassed to admit that I have never read Baal--Brecht's first play that is rarely if ever produced and/or studied today. But I do know enough to know that it's not the kind of work we now expect from Brecht. This is Brecht the angry teenager--channeling German late-romantic decadence and nihilism. (The deliberately schematic expressionistic narrative charts the slow decline and assorted crimes of a hedonistic rebel poet.) So all it would have going for it is really the poetry. Poetry, of course, is hard enough to fulfill in translation. But am I right to be extra dubious about the ability of Mr. Sherman (still known chiefly as the author of that acting school staple Women and Wallace) to match the poetry of a young Bertolt Brecht?  (Especially when Sherman admits in the program to adapting the original German text via Google Translate!)

Updating Baal, as Clive does, to the Rent-era1990s might have seemed to Hawke and Sherman (and New Group A.D. Scott Elliott who has produced it) the most sensible thing to do, this choice may be the project's fatal flaw, even if its only reason for being. This muddled and pretty generic picture of punk/grunge Alphabet City ennui ends up not nearly as interesting or arresting as Baal would be in its original period of Weimar Germany--which I imagine unfolding in a series of Egon Schiele images brought to life.

The only reason, I assumed, to do this kind of "update" of Baal would be as an excuse to stage a decadent rock-concert mash-up of Brecht's basic idea. I'd be ok with that. But while Clive is billed as only being "inspired" by Baal, the adaptation isn't nearly free enough to make the concept work. Plus, worst of all: the music stinks!  What there is of it, at least. Hawke does bear a properly debauched Tom Waits-style voice (or is that just Hawke's usual untrained, strained raspiness? the flu?), but he can barely get a chord out of his ever-present guitar. If "Clive" is supposed to be some magnetic rocker who packs them in at Bowery Ballroom...well let's just say you're not going to want his CD.

To end on a higher note, though, I will say I was most looking forward to Clive for the chance to see a rare stage appearance by the mighty Vincent D'Onofrio. My only disappointment he wasn't in it more. Playing the sidekick character, he seems miscast, being some 15 years older than Hawke and sporting some odd redneck accent+mustache. But when he actually does get to plant his big, big presence center stage--even for something as ridiculous as dog-whoofing--I wanted more.  Come back, Vincent, come back! Forget Ethan and even Bertolt and go back to Sam Shepard where you belong!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Playgoer Lives!

Well that was some "hiatus," wasn't it?  Where were we...

For the few of you that might still be tuning in, welcome back! Sorry for the prolonged, um, "intermission." My excuse is simply lack of time, mainly. I finally completed my PhD in the fall--at the CUNY Graduate Center Theatre Program--and went right into a busy semester of adjunct teaching. (For the academically uninitiated, for "adjunct" think "freelance.") So the good news is, I'm finally--as my mother always wished-- "a doctor"!  The, as of yet, less manifestly good news is that I'm now "on the market" seeking full time academic employment as a professor. So please excuse the blatant plea, but if you're in academia and your department is hiring, and you're a fan of this blog, tell them to hire Dr. Playgoer!

While I'm groveling, I also want to put out there that Playgoer is looking for any other kinds of new "revenue streams." That includes being more available for hire, personally, for writing/reviewing. And if anyone has offers or suggestions of what to do with the blog to "monetize" it more, please share! That includes advertising; for a long time I have sold a small amount of ad space (simple text links), so if you or your company is interested. (You can also still purchase ads via "Blogads" in the upper right margin.)

As before, I can be reached at playgoer_at_gmail, with any tips, offers, or inquiries.

Indeed, the increasing economic challenges of both freelancing and running a blog (not to mention during a Depression!) have taken their toll on me as well. Chloe Veltman testified to this eloquently a few months back. (Her argument, basically: freelance theatre writing has ceased to be a sustainable self-supporting profession, even of the most minimal kind.) And when I look around the Blogosphere as a whole, I see a similar cresting, perhaps, after a wave of volunteer bloggers in the 2000's subsidized the whole discourse. More and more onetime independent blogs are either folding or, with luck, being acquired. (Hey, anyone wanna buy a theatre blog?)

I admit thinking long and hard about whether to resume The Playgoer at all. It's definitely become much harder for me than it used to be to stay online all day and keep up with everything going on in theatre. And I've completely lost touch with whatever remains of what we used to call "the theatresphere"--the coterie of other theatre bloggers upon whom I once relied to generate the kind of conversations that fueled this whole endeavor. But is there even a theatre blogosphere any more? I'm heartened to see many of the old-timers are still posting. But I haven't even begun to be able to catch up with what they're doing lately.

My sense is that, with the new mobile technologies, a lot of theatre-blogging-type activity has migrated to Twitter and other bite-size platforms. Debates that used to go on for days between different blog sites in long posts now transpire over a few hours between several theatre folk at once in 140 characters or less. Does anyone have time any more to actually sit down and read a blog? Can a classic 1200-word blog-rant survive the attention span we give to our handhelds?

Well I've decided to stop worrying about such questions and go ahead and do what I can right here on this little piece of web real estate I have. So, for now, this will become a kind of Playgoer "Weekend Edition"--which will be devoted mostly to reviews.My primary objective right now is just to get back into writing about theatre, and that's the easiest way to start. So if you want to keep following, expect a single post each weekend (possibly Friday, possibly Sunday) discussing one or more current or recent New York productions. (Or out of town shows, if I've been traveling.)  I also aim to step up my Twittering, to supplement the more long-form writing here with quicker links and comments on theatre news and gossip.

Playgoer Weekend Edition begins this weekend with my shortly forthcoming writeup of the current Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. [Now posted, see below.] Which, as anyone who's seen it can attest, is just irresistible to write about for so many reasons!

Meanwhile, for now, I'll just say welcome back and I hope you'll find some virtual space for Playgoer in your busier-than-ever online reading habits. (Links to new posts will go out on Twitter and Facebook, in addition to the usual RSS feeds.) The landscape of The Theatresphere has changed and I look forward to you and I discovering--or REdiscovering--it together.

REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

If only the current Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featured something as jarring and surprising as a "Ghost Skipper" floating in and out of the background. Despite the understandable ridicule of that eventually discarded idea (which was cut by the time I saw a press performance), I might not have minded such a choice were it part of a bold, expressionistic dream-like reinvention of the play. But director Rob Ashford ends up serving up something much duller--a rudderless stumble-through of a long and flawed play where souped-up visuals try to substitute for drama.

Sara Krulwich, for The New York Times

I suppose I should start with the element that has made this production happen at all--the misguided star casting of Scarlett Johansson as "Maggie The Cat." I say misguided not because Johansson lacks talent or even stage chops. As she proved in her debut in A View from the Bridge, unlike other movie star Broadway novices, Johansson has a natural presence and energy on stage. (Only her voice--no doubt exhausted from delivering her long opening monologue eight times a week--gives away a lack of training. When little Scarlett starts sounding like Kathleen Turner with laryngitis, you know something ain't right.) Scarlett Johansson is not what's wrong with this Cat. If anything, it works against the show that this "star" character is basically only prominent on stage at the very beginning and very end! (That's certainly going to backfire with fans buying tix only to see her...)


No, what's wrong is that you have talented, able actors who are at sea in a script that certainly does not "direct itself." Ashford has put a lot of care into the setting and ambiance. (More on the many dubious "atmospherics" later.) But one doesn't get the sense of much insightful scene coaching in rehearsal.

That opening monologue of Maggie's, for instance, is quite a challenging aria and puts a lot of pressure on the actress to ground everyone in the play. But poor Scarlett seems to have gotten little advice other than "louder, faster, funnier." Even the more seasoned actors suffer from a clear unease and lack of direction. While everyone else in the audience that night seemed there either for our young starlet or seeing "Bloody, Bloody" Benjamin Walker in a towel, I was most looking forward to veteran Irish thesp CiarĂ¡n Hinds as Big Daddy. Anyone familiar with Hinds' stage and screen roles as gangsters and even the Devil himself (in MacPherson's The Seafarer) would expect the ultimate menacing patriarch. Instead, with that wan, weather-beaten face buried under bushy grandaddy whiskers and a Yosemite Sam accent, he's completely de-fanged. And just as Johansson seems completely on her own through her long Act One, Hinds and Walker spend their big Act Two confrontation dully sitting around and talking with occasional random bouts of wrestling.

As for Walker, the very fact I find little to say about him is revealing enough. True, Brick is an awfully hard part--more reactive than active, forced to listen more than talk. But whatever punk rock presence he brought to Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is sorely missing. Like his lean, tall, but frankly unimposing and somewhat delicate bare physique on constant display, Walker conveys little energy, strength or purpose on stage. But again--he doesn't seem to have received much direction other than "keep your shirt off." (And, perhaps conversely: "keep your towel from dropping.")

Ashford--formerly known for direction and choreography of hit musicals--began making a more dramatic name for himself in London, where his "Streetcar" (with Rachel Weisz) was a recent hit at the Donmar. But while the British rightly celebrate Williams, I've noticed they seem to like their Tennessee with a heavy dollop of "Southern Gothic" exoticism. So based on this Cat, I can see why they may have liked about Ashford's style. Here, Brick's little upstairs bedroom becomes a veritable grand ballroom--with a chandelier and several balcony windows encircling his regal bed. The airiness of it all (gossamer walls and high ceilings) is certainly pretty. But it makes it awfully hard to feel sorry for the guy. Or to believe this is a real house, for that matter.

And far more questionable, to my mind, than any visions of Brick's dead admirer is the added presence Ashford gives to the scripted characters of the African American household servants. I'm referring to their singing of black spirituals (!) during the Act Three climax. Now, even though the play is set nearly a hundred years after the Civil War, if one wants to paint Big Daddy as a plantation owner and his estate as some throwback to Dixie and Tara, I'm game if it's meant to add to the feeling of corruption and moral decay in the family. But these slaves servants sure are one happy bunch of Singing Negroes! The elder female maid is seen genuinely caring as she eavesdrops on one of Big Mama's concerned phone calls. And the men smile when they are ordered about by Big Daddy. Perhaps this is Ashford's way of trying to justify these characters and flesh them out.  But wouldn't it be more humanizing to show the truth of their situation--that they are there merely because it is their job?

Now that the (mostly negative) reviews are in (StageGrade average: C-!), it will be interesting to see how the show fares at the box office.  (The production is, after all, a purely commercial enterprise.) Playbill shows the house last week was at 83.5% capacity--not bad for a nonmusical play (oh wait, this is a musical!), but not the 99% I'm sure the producers expected Scarlett Johannson to draw. If what they wanted was a vehicle for her, maybe they should have avoided a three-act, two-intermission(!), talky script, where she's not even on stage half the time.

And I left really thinking the play is not even among Williams' top works. Nothing much happens, Brick is a cypher, and who outside of the family would care about Big Daddy's inheritance anyway? The play lives or dies, therefore, on the dynamism of the acting. And the acting in a meandering, plotless script like this depends more than usual on the directing.

Here's a directorial suggestion, by the way: Cat is basically one long continuous one-act, isn't it, unfolding more or less in real time in that one bedroom. So how about a site-specific, intermissionless staging in an actual upstairs room of a mansion, where the audience is stuck in that room with bedridden Brick, with the cast of eccentric characters popping in and out.

Such speculation, at least, diverted me for much of the performance at the Richard Rodgers Theatre...