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A Cooler Roof For A New 'Cat'

Jan 17, 2013
Originally published on January 17, 2013 11:11 am

There are certain classic American plays that are revived on Broadway every decade or so, to let a new generation of actors and audiences discover them. Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, running through March 30, is one of those iconic plays.

The last time Scarlett Johansson played on Broadway — which was also her first time — she won a Tony Award for her role as the young niece, Catherine, who unwittingly sets a tragedy in motion in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. The 28-year-old star, who's fresh off last summer's blockbuster movie The Avengers, wanted to return to the stage, and she read through a lot of plays. Then she found Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

"When I read it, I was just terrified of it," Johansson says. "And I think that's why I chose to do it. I didn't know how to do it, but I knew I could do it. So that interested me."

Johansson is stepping into a role — and a silky slip — that many actresses have made famous: Barbara Bel Geddes in the original production, Elizabeth Taylor in the film, Kathleen Turner and Elizabeth Ashley, among others, in Broadway revivals. But Johansson sees Maggie the Cat a little differently.

"She's not a slinky sort of sex kitten," Johansson says. "She's earthy and she's ugly at times, and you know, she is the ugly truth at times, for better or worse. And that's how I see her in my mind."

The play's director, Rob Ashford, who's well-known in New York for his work in musicals, has also directed revivals of classic American plays in London. He gathered a cast that includes rising star Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) as the alcoholic leading man Brick, and Irish actor Ciaran Hinds as blustering patriarch Big Daddy. Ashford says he wanted to direct this drama of family secrets and dysfunction with new eyes.

"You know, when we started rehearsal, one of the first things I said to them was, 'If I could take these characters off these pedestals where they've been placed and just kind of put them back in the play, let's make that our goal,' " Ashford says. "Not like someone 'giving' their Big Daddy or someone 'giving' their Maggie or someone 'giving' their Brick, but just these characters in a play."

Walker says Ashford's fresh perspective helped him tackle the role of Brick, a despairing ex-jock who's lost his best friend, Skipper.

"A lot of people [think], you know, 'Oh, it's the play where the guy doesn't know he's gay!' " Walker says. "And it's just more complicated than that; sexuality is much more complicated than that. What we learn about these people is much more complicated than that. I think what Rob has done is to embrace those complexities that are already in the play — I think that'll surprise people."

The unhappy, childless marriage between Brick and Maggie is brought into focus in the play by a 65th-birthday celebration for Brick's cantankerous father, Big Daddy. Big Daddy owns a huge cotton plantation and is dying of cancer — though the other characters keep that fact hidden from him. One of Tennessee Williams' biggest themes in this play is "mendacity."

"All the way through, they talk about lying and liars, and they're spoken of with such disgust and disdain, and yet we all live our lives by lies," says Hinds. "Small lies, white lies, either for our own nefarious reasons or to prevent people from getting hurt by the truth.

"And that's what seems to me the big heart of this play — who can face up to the lies and liars? The character that I play, Big Daddy, is the one who is the first one to stand up and say, 'All my life I've been hampered and held back by liars.' ... But when it comes to facing his own truth, which is delivered to him very simply and very devastatingly by his son, he's got nothing more to say."

Ashford says all the painful truths are wrapped in uncommonly beautiful language.

"There's so much poetry with the pain, do you know what I mean?" Ashford says. "It's all kind of, 'If life is gonna be brutal, then let's have a little beauty with the brutality.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There are certain classic American plays that are revived on Broadway every decade or so, to let a new generation of audiences and actors discover them. Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," is one of those. Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson headlines a new revival, which opens tonight.

Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The last time Scarlett Johansson played on Broadway, which was also her first time, she won a Tony Award as the young niece, Catherine, who unwittingly sets a tragedy in motion in Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge." The 28-year-old star, who's fresh off last summer's blockbuster movie, "The Avengers," wanted to return to the stage and read through a lot of plays. Then she came to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: When I read it, I was just terrified of it. And I think that's why I chose to do it.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHANSSON: I didn't know how to do to it but I knew I could do it. So that interested me.

LUNDEN: Johansson's stepping into a role, and a silky slip, that many actresses have made famous: Barbara Bel Geddes in the original production, Elizabeth Taylor in the film, Kathleen Turner and Elizabeth Ashley, among others, in Broadway revivals. But Johansson sees Maggie the Cat a little differently.

JOHANSSON: She's not a slinky, sort of, sex kitten. She's earthy and she's ugly at times. And, you know, she's the ugly truth at times, for better or worse. And, you know, that's how I see her in my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF")

JOHANSSON: (as Maggie the Cat) Why at Alex's party, for her New York cousins, best looking man in the crowd tried to follow me upstairs and force his way in the powder room with me. Followed me to the door and tried to force his way in.

BENJAMIN WALKER: (as Brick) Why didn't you let him, Maggie?

JOHANSSON: (as Maggie the Cat) Huh, I'm not that common, for one thing. Not that I almost wasn't tempted to. Would you like to know who it was? It was Sonny Boy Maxwell, that's who.

: (as Brick) Oh yeah, Sonny Boy Maxwell. He was a good end runner, but he got a little injury to his back and had to quit.

JOHANSSON: (as Maggie the Cat) Well, he has no injury now, and he has no wife and he still has a letch for me.

LUNDEN: Director Rob Ashford, who's well-known in New York for his work in musicals, has directed revivals of classic American plays in London. He gathered a cast that includes rising star Benjamin Walker as Brick and Irish actor Ciarán Hinds as Big Daddy. Ashford says he wanted to direct this drama of family secrets and dysfunction with new eyes.

ROB ASHFORD: You know, when we started rehearsal, one of the first things I said to them was, like, if could take these characters off these pedestals where they've been placed and just, kind of, put them back in the play; let's make that our goal. Like, not someone giving their Big Daddy, or someone giving their Maggie or someone giving their Brick, but just like these characters in a play.

LUNDEN: Benjamin Walker says Ashford's fresh perspective helped him tackle the role of Brick, the alcoholic ex-jock, who's lost his best friend Skipper.

: A lot of people always, you know, Oh, it's the play where the guy doesn't know he's gay. And it's just more complicated than that, sexuality is much more complicated than that. And what we learn about these people is much more complicated than that. And I think what Rob has done is to embrace those complexities that are already in the play. And I think that'll surprise people.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF")

: (as Brick) One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing, which is true. I had friendship with Skipper and you are naming it dirty.

JOHANSSON: (as Maggie the Cat) I'm not naming it dirty. I'm naming it clean.

: (as Brick) Not love with you, Maggie, but friendship with Skipper was that one true thing and you are naming it dirty.

JOHANSSON: (as Maggie the Cat) And you are not going to listen. And it's not understood. I'm naming it so damn clean that it killed poor Skipper. And you two had something that had to be kept on ice, Yes? Incorruptible, yes? And death was the only ice box you could keep it in.

: (as Brick) I married you Maggie. Why would I marry you, Maggie, if I was a...

JOHANSSON: (as Maggie the Cat) Don't, Brick.

(as Maggie the Cat) Let me finish.

LUNDEN: The unhappy, childless marriage between Brick and Maggie, is brought into focus in the play by a 65th birthday celebration for Brick's cantankerous father, Big Daddy, who owns a huge cotton plantation and is dying of cancer - though the other characters keep that fact hidden from him.

One of Tennessee Williams' biggest themes in this play is mendacity.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF")

: (as Brick) Have you ever heard the word mendacity?

CIARAN HINDS: (as Big Daddy) Sure. Mendacity's one of them $5 words that cheap politicians throw back and forth at each other.

: (as Brick) Do you know what it means?

: (as Big Daddy) Don't it mean lying and liars?

: (as Brick) Yes, sir. It means lying and liars.

: (as Big Daddy) Has someone been lying to you?

PAT HINGLE: (as Gooper) Hey, Big Daddy, they're all screaming for you.

: (as Big Daddy) Get out, Gooper.

HINGLE: (as Gooper) Excuse me.

: (as Big Daddy) Who's been lying to you? Has Margaret been lying to you? Has your wife been lying to you about something Brick?

: (as Brick) Not her. That wouldn't matter.

: (as Big Daddy) Then who's been lying to you and what about?

: (as Brick) No one single person and no one lie.

: (as Big Daddy) Then what? What then for Christ sake?

: (as Brick) The whole, the whole thing...

: (as Big Daddy) What's the matter with you? Well, you got a headache? Huh?

: (as Brick) No I'm trying...

: (as Big Daddy) ...concentrate, but you can't because your brain's all soaked with the liquor. That's the trouble. Wet brain.

LUNDEN: Belfast-born actor Ciarán Hinds plays Big Daddy.

: All the way through, they talk about lying and liars. And they're spoken of with such disgust and disdain, and yet we all live our live by lies and small lies, white lies - either for our own nefarious reasons or to prevent people from getting hurt by the truth. And that's what seems to me is the big heart of this play, and who can face up to the lies and liars.

And the character that I play, Big Daddy, is the one who is the first one to stand up and say all my life I've been hampered and held back by liars and the hypocrisy of it. But when it comes to facing his own truth, which is delivered to him very simply and very devastatingly by his son, he's got nothing more to say.

LUNDEN: Director Rob Ashford says all the painful truths are wrapped in uncommonly beautiful language by Tennessee Williams.

ASHFORD: There's so much poetry with the pain. Do you know what I mean? It's all like, kind of, if life is going to be brutal, then let's have a little beauty with the brutality.

LUNDEN: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" opens at the Richard Rodgers Theatre tonight and runs through March 30th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.