Three years after impressing New York audiences with her Tony award-winning performance in A View From the Bridge, movie star Scarlett Johansson is back on Broadway in the revival of another post-war American classic, Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The 28-year-old sex symbol stars in the iconic role of Maggie, the frustrated wife of a withdrawn privileged lush named Brick who's poised to inherit a massive Mississippi delta plantation—if she could just get him to clean up his act for two seconds. During the course of one interminable sweltering evening, Maggie helplessly watches in horror as Brick's brother Gooper and his wife scheme to charm themselves into the will of patriarch Big Daddy, who is rapidly dying of cancer (although he's kept in the dark about it until the end).
The three act play takes place during the course of one night (Big Daddy's birthday), and all of the action unfolds in Maggie and Brick's bedroom, an ironic comment, perhaps, on their moribund sex life. Brick spends the play hobbling around with a crutch, his foot in a cast following a drunken incident on the high school track, determined to drink enough to get that famous "click" in his head that makes him peaceful. His physical incapacitation means there's no easy way to escape his ferocious wife, who escaped poverty by marrying Brick. Now it seems they'll be left with nothing after his father's death, in part because she's still without child. But while Brick can't get far on foot, he's already a million miles away when the curtain rises.
Johansson slips smoothly into the part, identifying with Maggie's virtues—her faith in Brick, her adamantine perseverance, her flashes of vulnerability—and avoids the cliched pitfalls that come with the role, namely a coquettish, husky-voiced seductiveness and a tendency to turn Maggie into a whining conniver. Her performance is solid and deeply passionate, but not electrifying; one senses that Johansson is determined to blend in as part of an ensemble—not a sexy movie star—and she's well-aided here by everyone in the cast except Benjamin Walker, who appears to lack the wrenching isolated heaviness that the role of Brick requires.
Walker, who starred in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is a good actor, and he certainly looks the part—tall and strapping, with a face that lends itself to easy brooding—but he appears to be floating on the surface here instead of disappearing into Brick's demons. (The crux of the drama hinges on the recent suicide of his high school football buddy and the latent homosexuality that precipitated it.) To be sure, Brick is an elusive character to fill—he says little and moves less—but without the right gravity the central dynamic of the play is thrown perilously off kilter. Brick is a dying star imploding slowly in on itself, poised to go supernova, and he serves as an indispensable counterbalance to Maggie's frantic clawing.
Because of this, the production feels merely adequate. Christopher Oram's beautiful Southern Gothic set is lavishly appointed, Julie Weiss's costumes are deliciously atavistic, Neil Austin's lighting design is warmly suited to the moody occasion, and most of the actors—particularly Johansson, Debra Monk, and the magnificent Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy—deliver compelling, multidimensional performances. But overall, the magic is missing, perhaps because Brick isn't far gone enough. Or maybe Rob Ashford's direction never quite crystallized into an unforgettable evening. There's an interesting cat lost up there somewhere, but the roof never really heats up.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through March 30th at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street.