Sunday, January 20, 2013

Picnic (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

The production design may lean a bit towards the austere – the better to conjure the grittiness, as opposed to any nostalgia, for its early 1950’s small town Kansas setting – but visuals aside, the Roundabout’s revival of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner about a hunky drifter who sets the repressed female hormones raging is an altogether admirable mounting of a still potent period piece.

As far as rethinking of classic plays go, the re-imagining here is nowhere near as radical as in director Sam Gold’s take on the same company’s “Look Back in Anger” last season, nor is set designer Andrew Lieberman’s work here anything like his surreal vision in the Osbourne play.

Gold vividly brings out Inge’s then-timely themes of sexual repression, defiance of social conventions, women’s dependence on men, loneliness and frustration, and as the playwright once put it, “the possibility of our everyday lives.”

His cast is strong across the board. There’s Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Potts, the neighbor who takes in the buffed (and often shirtless) migrant Hal in the first place and sets the plot in motion. Mare Winningham is Flo Owens, a single mother raising two daughters: 18-year-old beauty Madge (Maggie Grace) and precocious, intellectual younger girl Millie (appealing Madeleine Martin). Versatile Elizabeth Marvel is Flo’s boarder Rosemary, a lovelorn schoolteacher who sets her aggressive cap on the reluctant Howard (Reed Birney). Marvel balances the comic and poignant aspects of her not-always-likable role well.

In the challenging role of Hal -- one that must radiate sex appeal, and ultimately demonstrate a convincingly passionate chemistry with Madge -- Sebastian Stan delivers, and conveys Hal’s vulnerability, too. To his and Grace’s great credit, under Gold’s perceptive guidance, the sparks are entirely believable.

As Alan Seymour, Madge’s solid boyfriend and Hal’s old college dorm-mate (the role originated by Paul Newman), Ben Rappaport provides good contrast, and makes of his character something more than Hal’s "decent-guy" rival.

David Zinn’s costumes and Tom Watson’s hair and wig design immeasurably help sustain the authentic period feel.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, 212-719-1300 or http://www.roundabouttheatre; through 2/24)
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