It is a shame that there seems to be little room for new plays either on Broadway or the West End unless they are cast (or miscast) with big name television or film stars. Revivals have name recognition, in addition to the name recognition of the stars who justify them. Curently in Londn we have Moliere's THE MISANTHROPE with Keira Knightly, and Ian McKellan in WAITING FOR GODOT returning after a three month sellout run. And, fresh from Broadway, Debbie Allen's all Black production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy, Phylicia Rashad (Allen's sister) as Big Mama (very much a uspporting role), and British stage and television star Adrian Lester as Brick. with young American actress Sanaa Latham as Maggie. CAT keeps being revived. There was a superb production here in London a few years ago with Brendan Fraser a very touching Brick. It is an American classic, but who is the current or future Tennessee Williams?
CAT is a masterpiece of ocndensation. The play takes place over two hours in one setting. None of the short attention span cutting between short scenes that has vitiated the emotional impact of so many contemporary plays. Theater isn't film or television and great drama can develop a conflict in long paragraphs rather than short sentences. The twenty-plus minute scene between Big Daddy and Brick is an example of the power of a long, intense scene.
CAT is such a well wrought play that the updating to the 1980s and the change from 1950s Southern white nouveau riche to African-American characters doesn't affect it much at all. James Earl Jones is a great, towering Big Daddy, Lester a fine Brick trying desperately to remove himself from his surroundings and numb himself from his self-hatred, and Latham hits all the right buttons as Maggie: beautiful, sexy, funny, desperate, irritating and brave. There were things I had never seen before in other productions of CAT -- Brick's compassionate (as opposed to vengeful) telling his father the truth about his illness, for instance. And, finally, a Brick who really acted drunk after drinking ocnstantly throughout the play. Lester made Brick's sexuality less ambiguous than Ian Charleson or Brendan Fraser did in recent London productions, but his Brick is a man who simply doesn't know what to do about any sexuality -- an "ass-aching Puritan", as Maggie calls him.
Like all of Williams's work, CAT is about sex and mortality -- how we deal with our sexual desire and how we face death. In the greatest scene in the play between Big Daddy and Brick, the two come together. Brick admits that Skipper's feelings for him weren't so pure (Brick's ideal is a sexless male friendship) and that he, in his typical passice-aggressive style, cuts off the friend who loved and needed him because he oculdn't deal with the reality of homosexuality as he has cut off his wife for wanting him and Skipper to face the truth; and Big Daddy faces his terminal cancer and the end of his life. Beside these big issues, the squabbling over inheritance seems petty. Big Daddy tells Brick that man is the only animal that knows he is going to die. Everything in Williams follows from that.
So Tennessee Williams has been well served this year in London -- a fine STREETCAR with Rachel Weisz and an intense, often appropriately funny CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.