When I heard that the Roundabout Theatre Company would be reviving The Winslow Boy, I was simultaneously thrilled at the prospect of seeing this worthy property again and fearful at how it would be received in the United States, 66 years after its original Broadway premiere. Playwright Terence Rattigan, after being the toast of the theater world on both sides of the Atlantic, had been targeted by critics as stodgy after the mid-1950s, and had not fully recovered, even with a knighthood in hand, when he died two decades later.
I need not have feared. The play, which closed at the American Airlines Theatre at the start of the month after 85 performances, kicked off the company’s 2013-14 season in fine fashion. Its narrative line was far sturdier than the prior Rattigan productions from the Roundabout that I’ve seen, The Deep Blue Sea in 1998 (starring Blythe Danner) and Man and Boy in 2011 (starring Frank Langella).
I previously considered the playwright in a post on the centenary of his birth. I write in the belief that some of what I express might lead at least one reader to discover something new or even reconsider a long-held opinion. But really, it’s the value of shows such as this one that will make the crucial critical establishment and the audiences they influence look with fresh eyes at a figure wrongly dismissed as fussy and hidebound in a drawing-room way of life that looked like an increasing artifact following the kitchen-sink realism of John Osborne's 1956 drama, Look Back in Anger.
The first thing that director Lindsay Posner got right was, in fact, to accept, by and large, Rattigan’s Edwardian time frame. (One slight concession: Instead of 1908, when British readers first became transfixed by the real-life theft accusation that inspired the drama, the events have been moved back five years, to just before WWI, when the nation’s longtime faith in the government and military died in trenches on the Continent.) He did not make the mistake of the filmmakers behind the 1994 remake of Rattigan’s prep-school drama The Browning Version, who updated the plot for little reason and to no discernible positive effect.
Second, Posner accepted the theatrical tradition in which Rattigan operated—the “well-made play” that depends on tight plots and careful preparation of effects. It makes demands on attention-wandering modern audiences that might seem considerable, even extreme, with one principal character not even appearing onstage for the first hour. But that seemingly leisurely approach also brings with it rich subtleties in characterization that endures long after the curtain descends.
In a contemporary culture in which reality shows glory in their shamelessness, Rattigan’s consistent concern from play to play with the loss of reputation (he was homosexual at a time in Great Britain wehn it could lead to arrest) might seem old-fashioned. In fact, though, the obsessive quest of the father of The Winslow Boy—that his country’s legal system live up to his barrister’s urging, “Let right be done”--resonates as much with 21st century Americans as much as with Edwardian Englishmen.
The plot sounds simple enough: banker Arthur Winslow, a pillar of the community, fiercely proud of his family’s honor, battles in court his son Ronnie’s school, which had expelled the 13-year-old for allegedly stealing a postal order from a fellow naval cadet. But what begins as a legal drama becomes onstage a family—and, implicitly, a social—one.
Complications ensue: Is Ronnie, in fact, innocent? (Initially, he hides in the family garden, wary of the wrath of his godlike, righteous father.) Why doesn’t Arthur accept the advice of his practical but warmhearted wife Grace: i.e., let Ronnie have a clean slate by letting him start over in another school where nobody need know about this scandal, rather than expose him to notoriety? Will carefree older son Dickie, forced to leave college because of mounting expenses for Ronnie’s defense, make a go of it in the business world? Should Arthur continue his defense, even after it raises the possibility of ending the engagement of daughter Catherine?
For the last four decades or so, the best chance to see how these questions were resolved came in the form of the 1948 and 1999 film adaptations directed by, respectively, Anthony Asquith and David Mamet. It was the achievement of London’s venerable Old Vic Theatre to remind people (including management at The Roundabout Theatre Co.) that it remained a sterling example of stagecraft, too.
The Roundabout made two key personnel decisions in deciding to import the Old Vic production of this vintage play. First, it retained Posner, who took a fresh approach to Rattigan’s exquisitely paced script, including bringing little-suspected ironic humor. Second, the effects of using American actors in many subsidiary roles were mitigated by the excellent dialect coach, Stephen Gabis.
The principal British import—really, the marquee attraction—was Roger Rees, probably best-known to most of the American public for his recurring guest role as Robin Colcord on Cheers, but also a sterling actor also possessed of extensive stage experience (including the Roundabout’s 2000 production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in which he played Dr. Astrov). This time, as Arthur Winslow, he powerfully played a family pillar whose deteriorating health makes him unexpectedly vulnerable.
The rest of the cast used to the hilt Rattigan’s wonderfully inhabited their roles, especially the following:
*Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio exhibited all the maternal warmth suggested by her character’s name, Grace, but also the strength needed to challenge her husband over what seems like a fruitless obsession.
*Michael Cumpsty bestows on solicitor Desmond Curry—a source of amusement to the family with his diffident, awkward manner—a special dignity as a loyalist who does not deserve them when so many others do.
*Charlotte Parry and Alessandro Nivola distinguish themselves as the feminist Catherine and the more traditional barrister retained by the family. Sir Robert Morton, whose relationship progresses from barely concealed hostility to considerable admiration—and, perhaps, more.
I should mention a slight pet peeve here. The Roundabout has an excellent set of theater enrichment programs, or “talk-back” sessions, in which audience members can learn more about the show. The performance I attended, however, was part of the “Celebrity Series,” a title that is more of a case of wishing than reality. Had Rees or even Ms. Mastrantonio appeared, it might have lived up to its name. But the actors who came out on stage, Nivola and Zachary Booth (who played Dickie), however talented they were, are hardly celebrities. Rattigan, who valued precise language and even understatement, would have found the hype distasteful.