Broadway has embraced many - perhaps too many - breeds of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in recent years.
Tennessee Williams' hungry and restless Maggie has been reincarnated as a slinky sexpot (Elizabeth Ashley), a sexual bulldozer (Kathleen Turner), an ineffectual flower (Ashley Judd) and, barely five years ago, a smartly luscious kitten (Anika Noni Rose) in the all-black production best remembered for James Earl Jones as Big Daddy.
What we have not had, at least in my experience, is a sedate Maggie in a tasteful, even timid revival of Williams' 1955 Pulitzer winner about voracious Southern-gothic greed and a loveless, lying family.
But here is Scarlett Johansson, the intelligent heat-seeking missile whose 2010 Broadway debut in "A View From the Bridge" justly earned her a supporting actress Tony. In her much-anticipated star turn as one of the theater's juiciest women, she works so admirably to avoid Maggie-the-Cat cliches that the actress and the character almost disappear in sensitive, levelheaded, ladylike restraint.
Even the iconic silk slip -- the one which Maggie throughout history has worn like a second skin while trying to seduce her Brick, her damaged husband, back to their bed -- is bizarrely chaste and modest. For heat, we must look to the moody, alcoholic Brick (played with dashing, elegant disdain by Benjamin Walker), wrapped first in a towel and not too self-involved to flash us his butt.
Debra Monk is too smart for silly dim-bulb Big Mama, which means that the dying, disappointed Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds) seems too mean for our sympathy.
What a strangely unmoored production this is. According to reports from previews, director Rob Ashford had to scrap chunks of his original high-concept vision. This included appearances of the ghost of Skipper, Brick's athlete buddy, the tragic figure who loved him too much.
But the ghost of that possibly misguided idea haunts this production with tall hulking windows, golden lights and long gauzy curtains that beautifully match Johansson's amber hair. Without Ashford's original ideas -- including, we're told, songs -- what's left is faceless, respectable and dull. Who ever imagined we'd miss the vulgarity?
WHAT "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
WHERE Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., Manhattan
BOTTOM LINE Scarlett Johansson is a sedate Maggie in a timid revival.