Can someone please get Ben Brantley off auto-pilot—or at least persuade the New York Times drama critic to fix the malware in his computer that invariably inserts “dated” or some synonym whenever he’s reviewing a revival? The latest production falling victim to this is the Roundabout Theatre Co. production of Picnic, at the American Airlines Theater, labeled in Brantley’s review as “time-yellowed.”
If New Yorkers know the play at all, it is through the 1955 film starring William Holden and Kim Novak as the impetuous young lovers. Picnic and the three other hits that playwright William Inge enjoyed in the 1950s—Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs—have been performed in the hinterlands, but seldom on the Great White Way, since their premieres. But 60 years after Picnic opened (with Ralph Meeker and Janice Rule in the roles later taken by Holden and Novak), and a century after the birth of Inge, must have seemed long enough to the creative team at the Roundabout.
Well, sort of a revival. Director Sam Gold, who revisited John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger last year, with results not so successful, has chosen to take the drama back closer to Inge’s original intentions, before Joshua Logan, director of the 1953 show, urged on the playwright a more optimistic ending.
In a post-performance discussion, the ever-informative Ted Sod, the Roundabout’s director of education and outreach, told the audience that, like Terence Rattigan (whose Man and Boy the company produced in 2011), Inge was a closeted gay man at the height of his greatest renown, in the 1950s. In the 1960s, his despair and drinking escalated, and by the time of his suicide in 1973 he had fallen off the perch he had occupied with contemporaries Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as the greatest American playwrights of his time.
Inge shares something else with Rattigan besides sexual orientation: language filled with understatement, spoken by characters whose words have equal trouble conveying the deepest longings of their hearts as well as their shattering confrontations with convention. It takes special, talented actors to allow these emotions to surface, and Gold has benefited in that regard from his largely veteran cast.
The best-known cast members, Ellen Burstyn and Mare Winningham, playing next-door neighbors, are particularly good at conveying these emotions. Burstyn’s good-hearted Helen Potts is all sweet, befuddled astonishment as she beholds the bare torso of a young drifter she has hired. It brings all too readily to mind the memory of her own marriage, quickly contracted—and just as quickly annulled by the mother for whom she now acts as caretaker. Winningham does even better with a larger, if somewhat less sympathetic, role as middle-aged, careworn Flo Owens. On her face, fierce love for her two daughters vies with the implacable desire that they make more socially advantageous matches than the one she made with a handsome ne’er-do-well.
As Flo’s boarder, schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney, Elizabeth Marvel brings a flood of emotions—sarcasm, shame, terror, most prominently—to her depiction of a woman unnerved that she will spend the rest of her life single, and ready to do just about anything to avoid that fate. She takes the scene in which Rosemary gets drunk, tries to dance with Helen’s hired hand, Hal Carter—only to rip his shirt off, and, embarrassed, denounce him as “poor white trash”—on a thrilling ride from uneasy farce to deep pathos--easily among this production’s finest. As Howard Bevans, Reed Birney is also extremely fine, though in a very different key, as this confirmed bachelor tries to navigate the swiftly changing currents in his relationship with Rosemary.
The younger cast members range widely in quality. As Hal, Sebastian Stan gets one part of his role right: he has the convulsive effect of a young Brando or Elvis on the women of this town of squelched dreams. But the other half—self-loathing fueled by easy success with women, irresponsibility and troubled childhood and teen years—seems beyond his power to suggest. Maggie Grace doesn’t fare much better as Flo’s older daughter Madge, a young beauty brought unexpectedly to an early life crossroads by a passion for Hal that comes across her with the suddenness of a summer squall.
On the other hand, Madeleine Martin makes an indelible impression as Millie, with her booming voice suggesting that, far from this one-horse town, Madge’s tomboy kid sister--someone with a penchant for books and thinking for herself--has a chance to make herself heard loud and clear someday. It’s the kind of happy ending denied to nearly all the other characters in Inge’s poignant slice of Americana.