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The African American Shakespeare Company’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof comes during an off-year for Tennessee Williams plays. The American Conservatory Theater scrapped their plan to stage A Streetcar Named Desire, which would have opened this month, in favor of Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles, a much-hyped (though, in this reviewer’s opinion, pretty mediocre) contemporary play. Meanwhile on Broadway, critics are blasting Rob Ashford’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which stars Scarlett Johansson as Maggie the Cat, for being gaudy and shallow.

No doubt, Williams has become fraught territory in the theater world. Owing to unforgettable cinematic interpretations by Vivian Leigh (Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire) and Elizabeth Taylor (Maggie in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), his characters are more familiar to and beloved by the masses than is typical for theater. This means exceptional pressure to live up to past renditions – a weight Ms. Johansson now finds herself under. At the same time, it is increasingly the case that Williams’ world is no longer our own. His post- World War II Southern society feels about as far from a 2013 metropolis as Chekhov’s 19th century provincial Russia does. After their nth productions, both playwrights have reached the point of being valued for their “timelessness” more than their historic specificity.

In view of all this, African American Shakespeare Company’s L. Peter Callender takes what is probably the best approach to directing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: as by-the-book as possible. Callender takes none of the artistic liberties for which Ashford has earned reproof. With the obvious exception of all the actors being black – something that, apart from a line or two in which the characters overtly reference their own whiteness or use the N-word, is not at all made significant – this production is about as standard as they come; above all, a showcase of Williams’ brilliantly vivid characters and the actors who have the opportunity to play them.

For those who are not familiar with the play, it concerns an ex-football star named Brick (Tyrone Davis) and his sultry wife, Maggie (ZZ Moor), who are holed up at Brick’s family’s plantation for the occasion of Big Daddy’s (Peter Temple) 65th birthday. Brick and Maggie’s relationship is on the rocks, since Brick has taken to heavy drinking after the death of his close friend Skipper and refuses to sleep with Maggie, thus ensuring that they remain childless. This is particularly problematic, as Big Daddy has been diagnosed with cancer, causing the question of inheritance to loom large. Big Daddy hates hates his son Gooper (Shawn J. West) and dotes on Brick, but there is no getting around the fact that the latter is a hopeless alcoholic and quite possibly a closeted homosexual. Big Momma (Eleanor Jacobs), Gooper, his snooping wife Mae (Yazmina Kay) and their litter of obnoxious children are all in attendance, ensuring that these issues come to a very ugly head over the course of a day.

Whoever plays Maggie is typically billed as the star, for obvious reasons: the character is calculatingly intelligent, tragic and smoking hot. Moor is certainly good at being hot (the silk slip in which she passes the first act makes sure of that), somewhat less so at being sexy, perhaps because she comes across as younger than she is supposed to be. Still, by any measure she pulls it off – or would, if it weren’t for her having to play against a completely flat, lackluster performance by Davis. Granted, Brick is a character largely anesthetized by booze, but the idea is that he still has something smoldering within him that he is harboring with mighty strength. Davis’ version seems neither drunk nor formidable at any level – just a limp, dazed man whom it is impossible to imagine Maggie ever having fallen for.

Fortunately, much of Act Two occurs between Brick and Big Daddy, whom Peter Temple plays marvelously. Temple exudes many of the personality traits that Brick is supposed to have inherited – stubbornness, frustration, cruelty – but which Davis, in his dull impression of drinker, does not sufficiently show. Temple, a large man with a booming voice, commands the stage every second he is on it with his bellows of “Crap!” or just a meaningfully cocked eyebrow.

Finally worth mentioning is Jacobs’ performance as Big Momma, which occasionally careens into wailing gratuity but generally succeeds in commanding sympathy. She is a character who truly loves her husband endlessly, in spite of his constant cruelty toward her. “I did love you. I even loved your hate and your hardness,” she says. Callender states that he sought to emphasize this idea – that beneath the layers of callous, conniving mendacity and self-deception, these characters really do harbor love for one another – as a fundamental take-away from the play. Temple and Jacobs succeed in revealing it. Davis and Moor come close at times, but ultimately one still feels that there’s nothing there.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through February 17 at the Buriel Clay Theater (762 Fulton Street)

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