Scarlett Johansson is the latest star to take a shot at “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams’ feverish 1955 classic about a wealthy Southern family with two daughters-in-law who all but scratch each other's eyes out over who’ll get the loot when Big Daddy, the dying (although he’s the last to know it) paterfamilias goes to his final reward. The show has now had six lives on Broadway, including three in the past 10 years.
The incarnation that opened Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre finds Johansson playing the self-nicknamed Maggie the Cat, the daughter-in-law who has the biggest hill to climb because it has become extremely dubious whether her alcoholic husband, Brick, who is Big Daddy’s golden-boy favorite, will ever touch her again, alluring though she be. Absent that, there’ll be no offspring from their marriage – a prerequisite for Brick and Maggie to qualify for a goodly share of the massive plantation Big Daddy built from nothing.
Johansson, who won a 2010 Tony for best featured (i.e., supporting) actress in her lone previous Broadway turn, a revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” joins a line of Broadway Maggies that includes, in order of appearance, Barbara Bel Geddes, Elizabeth Ashley, Kathleen Turner, Ashley Judd and Anika Noni Rose (in an all-black cast in 2008). There’s also Elizabeth Taylor, who starred in the 1958 film version opposite Paul Newman’s Brick and the original Broadway Big Daddy, Burl Ives.
The critics were mixed regarding Johansson, and largely unimpressed with the production, which was directed by Rob Ashford, staging his first drama on Broadway after a skein of credits there as a director and/or choreographer of musicals.
Ben Brantley of the New York Times said Johansson made “a few miscalculations….She is perhaps too forthright to be truly feline,” but concluded that “she confirms her promise as a stage actress of imposing presence and adventurous intelligence….Her Maggie is, as she must be, an undeniable life force and — as far as this production…is concerned, a lifeline….the only major player...who appears to have a fully thought-through idea of the character she’s portraying.”
Newsday’s Linda Winer was miffed about the whole thing, declaring, “What a strangely unmoored production this is.” For her, that included Johansson's performance: “In her much-anticipated star turn as one of the theater’s juiciest women, she works so admirably to avoid Maggie-the-Cat cliches that the actress and the character almost disappear in sensitive, levelheaded, ladylike restraint.” Winer said that Benjamin Walker provided some heat as Brick, but “what’s left is faceless, respectable and dull.”
In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz slagged the show and said that Johansson as Maggie was "a compelling idea on paper, but it doesn't deliver in reality." Subsequent descriptors of her performance include "alarmingly one-note," "overwhelmed by Williams’ drama and the heavy lifting demanded" "her voice...has the musicality of a foghorn. The power of the words get lost in translation."
Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press was OK with Johansson and the rest of the cast, rating her performance "a nifty turn...finding humor and barely hidden desperation in her role....She’s less overtly sexy than other actresses who have played the ironic role, making her Maggie more cerebral, angry and proud." But he faulted director Ashford for inserting too much intrusive music and too many noisy sound effects.