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OK, who let this 'Cat' in?

The only thing still needing work at the remodeled Geffen is 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

November 18, 2005|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

In Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," the central character of Brick waits for "the click," that moment, after a glass of bourbon, when alcohol and atmosphere combine and everything feels right. There was lots of booze served Wednesday at the opening of the Geffen Playhouse's revival of "Cat." Unfortunately, the theatrical equivalent of "the click" never arrived.

Ostensibly, the 500-plus people in the audience were gathered in Westwood to watch Brick, Maggie the Cat and the rest of the Pollard family celebrate Big Daddy's 65th birthday in Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play (which turns 50 this year). However, another birthday celebration threatened to overshadow these onstage festivities. The year 2005 marks the Geffen Playhouse's 10th birthday, and in honor of the occasion, the theater received an expensive gift in the form of a major renovation.

Wednesday's show was the first to open in the redesigned space. The good news is that the work is a success: After 18 months and $17 million, the Geffen now feels like a first-class theatrical venue. The seats, sightlines and acoustics have been greatly improved. Now all that's needed is some sprucing up of the product onstage.

Gilbert Cates' staging of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" does not diminish Williams' popular play, but it has nothing new to say about it. And if you ignored what remains of the Geffen's old California architecture -- not to mention the agents, movie stars and television personalities on hand -- you could easily forget you were in Los Angeles and think you were at a regional theater in say, Seattle or Minneapolis.

One region you wouldn't imagine yourself in would be the South, as accents at the Pollard plantation are varied and often unconvincing. This is an occasional distraction, one of the production's more forgivable faults.

The main problem with this "Cat" is in its emphasis. This was evident during the curtain call when John Goodman and Brenda Fricker received hardy ovations as they took the final bow together. No problem there -- they were responsible for the best performances of the night. But neither were playing the lead roles. That's like watching a production of "Hamlet" with Claudius and Gertrude sharing the final bows.

Admittedly, Goodman's Big Daddy is the production's biggest draw. The actor's rich, gravelly voice makes Williams' paterfamilias come alive vividly. In Goodman's big, fleshy hands, Big Daddy's monologues about "the human animal" and Europe being "a big fire sale" are comic and touching. And the way he disgustedly utters the word "crap" is a repeated pleasure.

Fricker is an equally strong presence onstage. She carries herself with a steely maternalism, and her plummy voice drenches Big Mama's words with character. Even if Irish cadences occasionally slip from her mouth, Fricker is poised and thoroughly professional.

Yet it's Maggie and Brick who should be the lifeblood of any "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." In this production, the troubles of the childless couple barely register. Jeremy Davidson's Brick is especially absent. Brick is a character who's trying to disappear, but in Williams' text, he's unable to do so -- the more he tries to recede, the more Maggie and his family can't ignore him.

Davidson fails to make the former football star's charisma shine through his booze-soaked misery. At the same time, the young actor, who played Brick last year in a production at the Kennedy Center, conveys no frustration or mystery in his character's voice, expressions or posture. Comparisons to a brick wall, while cheeky, seem appropriate.

Jennifer Mudge's Maggie is more present on stage but equally unengaging. Mudge prosaically races through her dialogue, ignoring Williams' desire that Maggie's lines should "be almost sung." When asked by Brick how "you're going to have a child by a man that can't stand you?" Mudge answers, without pause: "That's a problem I will have to work out." There's no sense of taunting, teasing or any other kind of marital friction in her interpretation -- the actress simply articulates each syllable of Act 1's famous final line as if Maggie's competing in a spelling bee.

Mudge also fails to physically convey any of Maggie's charming Southern flirtatiousness. She drapes herself on sofas and rolls around on the carpet, but it never feels natural. Most of all, this Maggie lacks feline ferocity. When her sister-in-law asks her, "How come you're so catty?" and Maggie responds, "I'm a cat," you just don't believe her. In voice or action, Mudge's Maggie -- like this production -- simply has no claws.

The Geffen Playhouse has for 10 years struggled to establish its own voice and audience. With this new space, the Geffen's artistic staff -- like Maggie and Brick -- have to produce. The stage is set. Los Angeles theatergoers now are waiting for top-shelf productions that really "click."

*

'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 18

Price: $35 to $69

Contact: (310) 208-5454, (213) 365-3500

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Jennifer Mudge...Margaret

Jeremy Davidson...Brick

Zoe Photenhauer...Dixie

Kirsten Potter...Mae

Matthew Glave...Gooper

Brenda Fricker...Big Mama

Sonya Eddy...Sookey

John Goodman...Big Daddy

William Dennis Hunt...Reverend Tooker

Gibby Brand...Doctor Baugh

By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Gilbert Cates. Set designer John Arnone. Costume designer Robert Blackman. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi. Sound designer Jon Gottlieb. Dialect/vocal coach Paul Wagar. Fight coordinator Bo Foxworth. Production stage manager Anna Belle Gilbert.

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