Scarlett Johansson returned to Broadway this month, three years after winning the Tony Award for her featured role in "A View From the Bridge." This time, she's slinking across the stage as Maggie the Cat, the tragic heroine at the center of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern tale has previously been seen on Broadway five times, so how did the current revival stack up against those other incarnations, not to mention the classic film version with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor at their most swoon-worthy? Directed by Rob Ashford ("Promises, Promises," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying") and also starring Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy, Benjamin Walker as Brick and Debra Monk as Big Mama, "Cat" will play at the Richard Rodgers Theatre through March 30.
For the most part, the claws were out among the top theater critics, with many complaining that Johansson and Ashford could not capture the sparks that electrified, even scandalized, audiences when the play debuted six decades ago.
Ben Brantley of the New York Times offered praise for Johansson's stage work, but was less enamored of the overall production.
"Ms. Johansson, like Maggie, seems to possess a confidence that can turn raw nerves into raw power," Brantley writes. "Her sophomore Broadway performance isn't as fully integrated as the one she gave in 'Bridge'; there are a few miscalculations in her take on Maggie. She is perhaps too forthright to be truly feline, and for a poor but well-brought-up debutante, her accent is strangely common."
Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune was more critical of the actress' work, writing that she captured Maggie's frustration with her sexually confused husband Brick, but not her vulnerability. He also griped that Walker was devoid of sex appeal that other actors had brought to the part of a former sports star awash in drink. "...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," Jones writes. "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."
Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News awarded the production two out of five stars, grumbling that "This production never really clicks." Part of the fault, in his mind lies with Johansson, who he implied lacks the stage chops to shoulder the demanding role.
"Fireworks light up the night sky during Big Daddy's birthday party in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'" Dziemianowicz writes. "That's it for the sparks, unfortunately. Broadway's starry but misguided new take on Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer winner about secrets, lies and love is a dim and soggy affair. The reason for the revival is Scarlett Johansson. A compelling idea on paper, but it doesn't deliver in reality."
Linda Winer of Newsday called this "Cat" "a strangely unmoored production" and faulted the actress for dampening Maggie's seductiveness. Although unlike Jones, Winer felt that Walker brought some smolder to the proceedings.
"Even the iconic silk slip -- the one which Maggie throughout history has worn like a second skin while trying to seduce her Brick, her damaged husband, back to their bed -- is bizarrely chaste and modest," Winer writes. "For heat, we must look to the moody, alcoholic Brick (played with dashing, elegant disdain by Benjamin Walker), wrapped first in a towel and not too self-involved to flash us his butt."
Thom Geier of Entertainment Weekly was similarly unmoved by Maggie's preening, awarding the production a B and writing of Johansson: "for a movie star with major sex-appeal, she falls surprisingly short in seductiveness. Her Cat flashes her claws, but doesn't purr."
Bloomberg News theater critic Jeremy Gerard was far more laudatory about the production and its Hollywood import. He appreciated Johansson's take on the role, noting that aside from a dreadful wig, her Maggie is "more tigress" than "kitty." He also praised Ashford's gutsy take on the play, awarding it four stars out of five.
"Unsurprisingly for Ashford, a musical comedy specialist, the show unfolds like a jagged waltz gone haywire," Gerard writes. "Maggie's not the only one recoiling from the heat of the sun on that hot tin roof."
Ultimately the critical reservations of many top reviewers may not be enough to keep audiences away from this sweltering tale of sex and jealousy. Johansson's star power may provide more than enough box office heat to make up for any lukewarm notices.