Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Not quite the Cat's pajamas

Whose roof is hotter? Georgia Lyman and Kelby Akin face off in Cat.

I've been the lone hold-out on local star director Scott Edmiston, who's always seemed to me charmingly skilled, yet slightly superficial; but perhaps his new production of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at the Lyric Stage through March 14, may turn the local tide my way (on the other hand, maybe not - remember all the silly defenses of The Seafarer?). For here is a play which depends on the crackling, dueling subtexts between its actors - despite its floridly overwritten monologues, it's a classic Method script. But once again Edmiston has operated more as decorator than investigator: this Cat is beautifully and aptly appointed, and beat-by-beat operates smoothly, even entertainingly; but it never comes to grips with the broken, though beating, heart of the play.

To be fair to Edmiston, he's working with a talented cast that is, in most instances, ever so slightly miscast. Georgia Lyman, for instance, was electric as the brittle seductresses of The Scene and Look Back in Anger, but doesn't naturally project the vulnerability beneath the claws of "Maggie the Cat." And newcomer Kelby Akin, who was so moving in Take Me Out in Worcester, is a bit too young and fresh for her sexually ambivalent husband, Brick. Likewise Lyric director Spiro Veloudos, for whom this production marks a "return to the stage" (if you don't count all those welcome speeches), deploys a convincing authority and a broad, comic brutality as Big Daddy, but perhaps not enough silent understanding of his own son.

Indeed, judging from this out-of-touch triumvirate - with, alas, the delicious Akin at its center - you could make the case that connection is what's missing from this Cat. And without that, the play collapses, as it's a self-declared critique of human "mendacity;" what separates its heroes from its villains is their ability to communicate honestly, if sometimes indirectly, with each other and themselves. Indeed, the central arc of the play is Brick's eventual acquiescence to the truth about his sexuality - and his guilt over it.

That slow about-face serves as the basic motor of the plot, which, in case you're unfamiliar with Cat despite its many lives on stage, TV, and silver screen, centers on frustrated, childless Maggie and her remote, depressed husband, Brick, who have returned to the family plantation for a loveless celebration of the birthday of Big Daddy, who may be facing a diagnosis of colon cancer. Brick, a faded sports star, has taken to the bottle to nurse both his broken ankle and his broken heart over the loss of best friend Skipper, a fellow golden boy who killed himself, perhaps over an aborted affair with Maggie, or perhaps over his passion for Brick. Maggie, meanwhile, is desperate not only to regain her husband's love but also his sexual interest, as the couple needs an heir to cement their rightful place in Big Daddy's will - a spot which Brick's slimy brother Gooper and his crass brood are currently attempting to usurp. The script is short on action, but long on exposition; it's a play essentially of revelation and unspoken emotional adjustment, as the truth about Brick and Skipper (and Big Daddy) slowly emerges, and Brick just as slowly edges back toward Maggie's bed.

Right now this period of adjustment doesn't really occur at the Lyric, although after repeated performances the actors still might find its groove. Lyman needs to bring more weakness and heartbreak into Maggie's early solo flights; we should see her grow in strength over the course of the play, but right now from square one we can tell she could have her husband for lunch. Meanwhile the hunky Akins needs to learn how to subtly relate and respond to his wife, even as he does internal work on Brick's despair and disgust - right now he just seems pouty and blank, although he's good (as he was in Take Me Out) at blind, impulsive rages. Likewise Veloudos could tap more deeply into both Big Daddy's relief at his (seeming) release from his deadly diagnosis, and even more importantly, his unspoken rapport with his son as he tip-toes toward his anguished secret (a rapport which everybody comments on, but which so far doesn't actually exist).

More animal husbandry: Spiro Veloudos and Cheryl McMahon.

There's one sterling performance in the production - Cheryl McMahon's sympathetic yet commanding turn as Big Mama (above, with Veloudos), which comes right after her similar success in Cabaret at the New Rep; this always-reliable actress is clearly on a roll (even if her subtlety makes all the coarse wisecracks at her expense seem bizarrely rude). And there's some similar subtlety from Owen Doyle (a former classmate of mine) as Gooper - indeed, Elisa MacDonald might take a hint from him and tone down her broad turn as his scheming wife Mae (to be fair, MacDonald does lighten up as the show progresses).

And as usual for an Edmiston production, the technical side of things is satisfyingly luxe. The set, wrapped by Janie E. Howland in a gossamer sheath, generally outshines the performers (although the wall-to-wall carpeting puzzles, as does Karen Perlow's overly bright Act I lighting, which improves markedly as night descends). The subtle, appropriate costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley. It's certainly a lovely package, even if right now it's a little empty.

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