In 2018, producer Matt de Rogatis applied for the rights to stage Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in Hoboken. After frustrations of unanswered phone calls and emails to book the theatre, the licensor Concord Theatricals asked what de Rogatis wanted to do. He recalled saying, “Can you ask them if we can do it in New York?’” Two days later, de Rogatis got the license to bring The Glass Menagerie Off-Broadway for a limited run in 2019, which ended up selling out. Unfortunately, they couldn’t extend the run. Recalls de Rogatis, “I was like, ‘Oh shit. Maybe they'll give us Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” And thus, Rogatis and Ruth Stage’s long affair with the play began.
Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof between 1952 and 1955. Set in the Mississippi Delta at the home of Big Daddy Pollitt, a wealthy cotton tycoon dying of cancer, the Pulitzer-winning play dives into the family’s dysfunctional relationships over one evening. There’s tension between Big Daddy’s son and former football star Brick and his wife Maggie as their sex life has collapsed and Maggie becomes jealous of the relationship between Brick and his friend Skipper. Meanwhile, the approaching reality that the inheritor of the estate will soon be decided sows greed and suspicion among the next generation. It made its Broadway premiere in 1955 and has been revived on the Main Stem five times.
The original plan for Ruth Stage’s Off-Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had been to follow The Glass Menagerie. But as we all know now, 2020 was not the year to plan a theatre production. When COVID hit and shut down everything, putting on the production became a waiting game. Following that, the plan for who would direct changed and Joe Rosario joined the production. (It was a funny coincidence: about 10 years ago, Rosario had spoken to de Rogatis about how great it would be to do a modern version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) Those pandemic obstacles proved to be a silver lining for the production. “COVID actually ended up helping us in so many ways: grants, cast changes, more time to raise money to move it into a bigger theatre, make it a bigger production,” says de Rogatis. In total, the show endured five cancellations before it was mounted last summer for the play’s first Off-Broadway staging allowed by the Williams estate. Its encore engagement opened this past weekend on March 5 and plays through March 31.
Rosario and de Rogatis’ vision for the modern production began with this simple challenge, according to Rosario: “We can’t change [the script]. How are we going to take it from the 1950s to now?” The production turned to contemporary set and costume design, as well as modern Southern accents, to update the Tennessee Williams work. And for Rosario, he’s seen it succeed so far in that setting. The producer-director often pretends to be part of the front-of-house staff at the end of performances and ask people what they thought. “We’ve had people come to shows, especially younger people who are really the best gauge because a lot of them don’t even know who Tennessee Williams is,” says Rosario. “And they look at it and think it's this new work.”
The two credit the show’s ability to resonate with modern audiences to the universality of its themes. “At the end of the day, I think every family in America experiences something that goes on in this play whether you're fighting over money or wills, with your sibling, adultery, liquor, drugs—dysfunction is timeless,” says Rosario.
When it comes to the repressed character of Brick, de Rogatis (who plays him in this production) looks at the rumors surrounding the character’s possible gay relationship with Skipper and thinks of how today’s professional athletes continue to face struggles with coming out publicly. “All you have to do is read Ryan O’Callaghan's book, who played for the New England Patriots in this century, talking about how terrified he was about coming out as a gay man in an NFL locker room because of that toxic culture,” de Rogatis vehemently says. “A lot of the anti-gay slurs went on in the locker room, and he was terrified that if anyone found out he was gay, he'd be ostracized from his teammates and from the NFL.” He also points to Broadway’s own Take Me Out and its exploration of similar topics: “That is not a dated show. That still feels very much modern.”
For its current return to The Theater at St. Clement’s, the production has welcomed new cast members: Cobra Kai’s Courtney Henggeler makes her New York City stage debut as Maggie, while Obie and Drama Desk Award winner Frederick Weller (To Kill a Mockingbird) steps in as Big Daddy. “If Maggie were around today, it would be Courtney,” Rosario gushes. “She embodies this woman like you cannot believe, and she is a total modern version of that person. She brings that sexuality that Maggie has and that push to get what she needs. A lot of times you don't see in productions that she has an amazing sense of humor. Courtney brings it out.” The pair also spoke about some design changes they made like tweaking the set and making the lighting “more psychological,” as de Rogatis describes it.
When the show proved itself successful last summer, de Rogatis reached back out to Concord Theatricals to find out what might be possible to keep the show going. With the theatre already booked by another production, extending wasn't an option and the licensing didn't allow for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to transfer to a new theatre. It’s a different tune than this time around as the production looks again to keep going. Concord told the team that so long as the show closes by March 31, Ruth Stage will have the re-engagement rights.
Reflecting on the opportunity to revisit Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, de Rogatis says, “It's really crazy that we have gotten a chance to not only do it, but then get a chance to tweak it even more and do it again and come back stronger.”
A previous version of this article stated that the production was looking into a Broadway transfer. Concord Theatricals has stated that the Broadway rights for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof have already been optioned by another producer.