At the Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway, New York.
Having previously seen a musical (see Jersey Boys), I had promised myself that I would also see a ‘serious’ play. Tennessee Williams is widely regarded as one of the greats and this production had Terrence Howard, who I thought was terrific in the excellent Hustle & Flow, and James Earl Jones (yes, Darth Vadar’s voice) in it, as part of an all black production.
The obvious comparison would be to the Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor movie, but thankfully that is avoided, as I have never seen it. I didn’t know much about it at all other than it is a family drama set on a plantation in the deep south.
My ticket, bought legitimately from the box office, cost $96 and my seat was excellent – about 15 rows from the front. ” Far enough away to avoid seeing how much the actors sweat, but close enough to see their faces”, I heard someone behind me remark. The set seemed small, but that added to the claustrophobic, hot and humid atmosphere generated on stage by the set, the actors and the lighting. Each act was played in and out by a saxophonist. The tune was a steamy, sexy tune that made it perfectly suited.
I should, firstly point out that Terrence Howard is no longer in this production. His face is still present on the billboard, but he has been replaced by Broadway debutant Boris Kodjoe.
The play opens with Kodjoe as Brick, the retired sports star turned drunk, in a steaming shower as the saxophone plays. Almost every woman, and quite a few men, audibly gasped at the site of Kodjoe’s naked back. I didn’t think that a drunk would have a physique like that, but let’s just put that down to jealousy – nobody else was complaining.
Shower interrupted. Maggie, Bricks’s frustrated wife, in a powerhouse performance from Anika Noni Rose, makes her entrance. Seemingly not to be outdone, Maggie soon strips down to her underwear and it is my turn to gasp. She really is quite stunning. Her appearance, though distracting, does not take anything away from her machine gun rapid delivery of what is essentially a monologue, occasionally punctuated by Brick’s drunken remarks. It is a tour de force from Anika, as she single-handedly provides all of the details as to what is going on within this household, whilst at the same time revealing her own emotion and desperation, particularly with her husband who would rather go to bed with a bottle than with her. But she also shows a determination to stick with the situation until something gives – like a cat on a hot tin roof. While Anika’s performance has a fluidity, Kodjoe seems to be consciously hitting his marks and making his cues and in doing so he makes for an unconvincing drunk.
Following a ten minute intermission, a huge cheer greets Phylicia Rashad, as Big Mama. Despite having an extensive and varied CV, Phylicia Rashad is best known for being Dr Cliff Huxtable’s wife, Clair, in the god awful Crosby Show. The years of forcing herself to laugh along with a gurning Cosby in garish sweaters seem to have had no detrimental affect, as she is quite simply outstanding. She blusters and rushes about the stage in a performance of raw emotion – tears stream down her face.
And there it hits me. In Big Mama, we are seeing an older person, but a person of similar desperation and determination to Maggie. With Big Mama, she faces the same uphill struggle to convince her husband that she truly loves him and in doing so has to put up with all sorts of shit. Like a cat on a hot tin roof.
A huge standing ovation meets James Earl Jones as he enters the scene as Big Daddy, the patriarch of this plantation dynasty. He shakes up the whole theatre, never mind the stage, as he bellows and swears his way through the scenes. It is almost too much – almost, but not quite, reaching the point of scenery chewing. There were times when he seemed to stumble over lines, either James Earl Jones lost his way, or this was another facet of his performance. That aside, there were times when he bellowed that I could not understand what he was saying.
For me, a key scene is the heart to heart (a rather stilted one, at that) between Big Daddy and Brick as they both begin to reveal their reasons behind causing their women to be cats on hot tins roofs. It looked like James Earl Jones was, at times, trying to coax a performance out of Kodjoe. Don’t get me wrong, Kodjoe hits his marks and delivers his lines at the right time, but the sheer feeling radiating out of the other actors does not come.
The final act, again following on from a ten minute intermission, brings things to a head. This act is much more of an ensemble piece, as other characters and their motivations come to the fore. Giancarlo Esposito (whom I recognise from his film work, e.g. The Usual Suspects), as Gooper the older but less valued brother of Brick, really grasps his chance to shine. His previous appearances in the play are for comedic value or as the brunt of others’ comments. These moments have clearly happened to Gooper all his life and when he gets his chance to vent, boy does he vent. It really did appear to me that in that moment Gooper had his chance to be heard and he takes it.
It strikes me that Gooper too is a cat on a hot tin roof – prepared to put up with not being the favourite son, if it means his dreams of running the plantation are realised. At least his desperation is shared by his wife Mae, played excellently as a subtle combination of bitch, to Maggie, wife, to Gooper and mother to her many children…of course popped out in an effort to please Big Daddy.
The play ends with all cards laid on the table, including a final confirmation that Brick truly is his father’s son and I was left wondering what might happen next.
This powerful story is laced with humour and the production is expertly presented. It got, deservedly so, a massive standing ovation.