We know from his personal writing (and context clues) that Tennessee Williams was into trade: hypermasculine men who are just as likely to have sex with men as they are to break their necks. These seductive brutes are strewn throughout his work, just as essential and memorable as his fading belles. There is no Blanche without Stanley.
Williams would probably love Matt de Rogatis’s Brick in Ruth Stage’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which recently opened at Theater at St. Clement’s. The former football hero is still a depressive alcoholic whose drunken escapades earn him a cast, crutches and the growing contempt of his wife, Maggie. But de Rogatis, tatted up and ab-tastic from his backlit shower entrance, compellingly finds the violence and identity crisis at Brick’s core in this contemporary staging.
With the character mostly a punching bag for his bellicose Big Daddy Pollitt (Christian Jules LeBlanc) and the talkative Maggie (Sonoya Mizuno) to explode onto, he is often somewhat of a handsome blank slate. De Rogatis, who also produces, convincingly hints at a torrid inner life, congealed into an imposing physique but betrayed by the anguish he voices at the mention of his ambiguously close relationship with a male friend who died by suicide.
The performance matches the play, which like many of Williams’ works, is concerned with surfaces as much as its characters’ deeper worlds. A fine-tuned melodrama about a wealthy Mississippi family undone by its patriarch’s cancer diagnosis, the play melts down the characters’ kept-up appearances and oft-mentioned “mendacity” as they scramble for his inheritance.
This production, the play’s first Off Broadway staging licensed by the Williams estate, has several excellent surfaces, though not all the elements rise to the occasion. Joe Rosario’s direction, for example, handles the soap opera-style histrionics well but doesn’t land much of Williams’s wicked humor. His characters can often seem aimless and airless, when they should be pointedly animated.
The character of Maggie buckles most under this misfire, especially in the first act’s hourlong near-monologue, in which she breathlessly complains about the children of her snooty sister-in-law, Mae (Tiffan Borelli), then laments her own childlessness and the speculation it brings on. Mizuno, though game, lacks a clear focus in this key scene. Hers is not the determined, seductively self-assured feline immortalized onscreen by Elizabeth Taylor — a high bar, to be sure — but a frenzied kitten rattling against a cage. This does, intriguingly, transform her legendary voluptuousness into a believable portrait of an Ole Miss grad whose hard-won financial safety has started to crumble.
Similarly, this production manages to make the bourbon-soaked setting feel like the actual South rather than a gauzy memory of the South. Matthew Imhoff’s set is the exact kind of faux luxury gilded Wayfair a contemporary Pollitt family would seize upon, and Xandra Smith’s costumes are exceptionally observed. Mae’s modern good-Christian-girl uniform — sleeveless top, colorful pants, sensible heel — is particularly inspired.
Borelli leans into the fun of her recognizable outfit (and hair in a tight bun), tastily spewing Williams’s barbs to crank up his melodramatic flair. She is matched in this by Alison Fraser as Big Mama, marvelously attuned to the work’s tonal balances. Her big, vulnerable eyes, painted smile and full blond hair perfectly convey everything there is to love about the playwright and his addictive fixation on deceiving appearances.
This “Cat” evokes most of that allure, give or take a few fizzles. For those looking to cool off on these scorching summer days with a Tennessee Williams classic, it’s a solid trade.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Through Aug. 14 at the Theater at St. Clements, Manhattan; ruthstage.org. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.