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Kathleen Turner's `Cat' Stresses Farcical Side

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF Revival of the Tennessee Williams play. Directed by Howard Davies. Starring Kathleen Turner. At the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. TWO obsessions drive Maggie, the elementally combative Cat of ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'' The first is her desperate determination to reclaim the love of her alienated, alcoholic husband, Brick - a man haunted by the death of a close friend and fellow athlete. The second item on Maggie's agenda is to prevent her detested in-laws from acquiring the rich Mississippi Delta estate built up by her fatally ill father-in-law, a self-made multimillionaire known as Big Daddy.

First encountered on Broadway in 1955, Maggie belongs in the second tier of Williams's notable female portraits - well below the fragile Laura Wingfield of ``The Glass Menagerie'' and the doomed Blanche DuBois of ``A Streetcar Named Desire.'' As played by Kathleen Turner in the version staged by Britain's Howard Davies, this Cat might also be described as Maggie the undeterred. Whatever her straits at any given moment, Turner's Maggie is a fighter determined to beat the odds. She is also a realist. When Brick (Daniel Hugh Kelly) asks just why she is so catty, she replies, ``I'm consumed with envy and eaten up with longing.''

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Although the new revival is seldom particularly moving, it keeps faith with the moss-fringed atmosphere of the Williams milieu and with the malevolent kinfolk who make it their battleground. In the marital standoff between the desperate Maggie and the withdrawn Brick, Davies and his two leading players maintain the nervous tension that energizes the unequal contest. Brick in his cups and on his crutches is more than a match for the importunate Maggie, handsomely represented by the statuesque Turner.

The duel between Brick and Big Daddy (Charles Durning) is of another sort. An unashamed vulgarian who brooks no sentimental nonsense, Big Daddy nevertheless yearns to achieve the relationship he has never been able to establish with his favorite son, the champion athlete who fell apart. While Williams devotes the larger part of Act 1 to what is almost a monologue for Maggie, the father and son confrontation of Act 2 is an intense, no-holds-barred quarrel that comes close to defining the ``mendacity'' that haunts Brick. Both Durning and Kelly relish the demands of his fierce encounter.

As a drama, ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' employs familiar devices of the playwright's stock in trade: a birthday party, a coveted estate, a fatal illness, and a convenient thunderstorm. The secondary characters tend also to suggest the prop department: especially hysterical Big Mama (Polly Holliday), obnoxious in-laws Mae (Debra Joe Rupp) and Gooper (Kevin O'Rourke), not to mention their five ``no-neck monster'' offspring. Mr. Davies has directed them with a broad hand, and the results are frequently farcical.

The performance as a whole comes more nearly to terms with the coarse vernacular of the writing than with its particular brand of eloquence, and the presence of the magnetic Miss Turner underwrites its popular appeal.

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