Despite poor critical notices, the revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” increased its box office take last week by more than $50,000, earning a total of nearly $900,000 with 92 percent capacity and an average ticket price of $87.37. These strong numbers can be attributed to the pull of its star, Scarlett Johansson. This is even more impressive when you consider that Broadway ticket sales are traditionally weakest in the post-holiday months as well as the fact that the 1955 Tennessee Williams drama was last revived a mere five years ago.
The 28-year-old actress, who received a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in a revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” in 2010, renewed her commitment to the theater in the challenging role of Margaret Pollitt, the self-identified “Maggie the Cat,” and emerged with relatively good reviews. Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times, called her “the lifeline” in a Rob Ashford production that he otherwise dismissed: “Ms. Johansson confirms her promise as a stage actress of imposing presence and adventurous intelligence.”
What remains to be seen is if her star power can make “Cat” a hot ticket. “Hot” as in Al Pacino “hot.” Last week also marked the end of veteran actor’s limited engagement in the revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Box office receipts totaled over a million with a whopping average ticket price of $141.10. In Johansson’s favor is the fact that she is in a role in a classic drama — said to be Williams’s favorite of his works — that has tremendous appeal. You only have to look at the pouty portrait of her on the show’s poster — in a slip showing off her curvy assets — to know that the marketers are all too aware of that.
Broadway has proved over and over again that the casting of stars provides a form of immunity against poor notices, but only if the role fits the public’s perception of the actor. In 2000, Kelsey Grammer, then at the height of his popularity on “Frasier,” chose to return, disastrously, in the title role of “Macbeth.” (He had a better time of it when he played light comedy in the musical revival of “La Cage Aux Folles.”) Jane Fonda, after a decades-long absence from the theater, came back in “33 Variations,” Moises Kaufman’s cerebral drama of an astringent scholar facing a debilitating illness. The middling grosses indicated that was not what the public wanted from the woman who’d rose to legendary status as a brilliant Oscar-winning actress, political activist, and fitness guru. More recently, Katie Holmes’s celebrity failed to prop up ticket sales for Theresa Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts,” and neither Debra Winger nor Henry Winkler were able to keep their respective plays — “The Anarchist” and “The Performers” — from quickly folding.
Next up will be whether Tom Hanks’s drawing power can lead “Lucky Guy,” Nora Ephron’s posthumous celebration of the turbulent life of newspaper columnist Mike McAlary, into the winner’s circle. With George C. Wolfe directing, the play seems like the brightest commercial spot on the horizon.
Image: Scarlett Johansson as Margaret in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”/© 2012 Joan Marcus