PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 12-18: Picnic, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and Can-Can

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18 Jan 2013

Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in <i>Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.</i>
Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.
Photo by Joan Marcus

"That's a lot of thwarted sexuality for one day."

So tweeted one New York theatre critic after seeing, in one day, Picnic and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the two big Broadway openings this week. For critics in general, meanwhile, the two productions represented a lot of thwarted satisfaction.

A lot was expected of Cat, mainly due the presence of Scarlett Johansson, whose Broadway debut in A View From the Bridge had been a surprise critical success. Maggie the Cat seemed like perfect casting for the smart, sexy and talented film star. As the opening approached, however, the staging became the subject of gossip, as reports in the New York Post revealed that director Rob Ashford had taken the unusual step of making Brick's deceased pal Skipper — often spoken of, but never seen — an actual ghostly presence in the play. Spector Skipper was axed before opening.

The Times, who had liked Johansson in View, said her performance contained "a few miscalculations," but that, ultimately, 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, directed by Rob Ashford, is concerned — a lifeline...Ms. Johansson is also the only major player in Cat who appears to have a fully thought-through idea of the character she's portraying."

The AP found her "less overtly sexy than other actresses who have played the ironic role, making her Maggie more cerebral, angry and proud," but thought the production "unnecessarily noisy," adding, "Ashford should just have let Tennessee Williams handle the fireworks." The Daily News also commented on the distracting fireworks, saying, "That's it for the sparks, unfortunately." The production, it said, was misguided and "a dim and soggy affair." Newsday, meanwhile, called Johansson "sedate" and the revival "timid."

Bloomberg news flatly stated that the producers hired the wrong man to direct: "Unsurprisingly for Ashford, a musical comedy specialist, the show unfolds like a jagged waltz gone haywire."


It was a bad week for 1950s dramatic staples. For the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of William Inge's Picnic — which is not ranked on Cat's level, but still retains the aura of a quasi-classic — was also termed a disappointment by the critical corps.

The Times said director Sam Gold's production lacked depth. "More than any version of Picnic I've seen, this one…highlights the role of prettiness as both a burden and an aspiration…. Which means that, lacking an electric current to invisibly connect its characters, [it] remains little more than a billboard for prettiness."

New York magazine criticized the mix of acting styles, saying, "this Picnic is an ad hoc smorgasbord, where not all dishes are guaranteed to palate in perfect harmony. Not everything goes down smoothly, and one wonders if a bit more salt might've tied the whole thing together." The New York Post was one of several that complained that the leads, Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan, did not connect as lovers: "They share youth and good looks, but no sizzle — there's more sexual chemistry among the cast of Old Jews Telling Jokes."

The Hollywood Reporter was more charitable, both to Inge (a writer critics seem to like to denigrate for not having ended up as durable as his fellow postwar scribes, Miller and Williams) and Gold, saying "as a snapshot of a time and place that shows the solitude of small-town life for so many people, women especially, Picnic yields gentle rewards. And if Gold's staging muffles some of them, it nonetheless finds resonance in the play's bruised cynicism about love."


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