Sebastian Stan and Maggie Grace in a scene from
Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Picnic
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Picnic, may not be William Inge’s best play, but it has certainly been an audience pleaser. Since it debuted on Broadway in 1953 with a legendary cast that included Kim Stanley, Eileen Heckart, Elizabeth Wilson, Ralph Meeker, Arthur O’Connell, Janice Rule, and in his Broadway bow, Paul Newman in a minor role, it has been seen in no less than ten additional productions. Aside from the 1955 Hollywood movie, it has been a Broadway-bound musical, two operas, had two main stem revivals and two television remakes. It has also had two New York productions in Inge’s alternate version, Summer Brave, which offers a different ending. Roundabout Theatre Company’s latest revival is its second since 1994, this time including veteran actors Ellen Burstyn, Reed Birney, Elizabeth Marvel and Mare Winningham.
What is this popularity due to? Picnic is certainly not a message drama. It seems to be saying you must follow your heart in love, which is certainly not a profound sentiment. On the other hand, the play is about lives of loneliness and quiet desperation, with which everyone can identity. It has fully rounded characters caught up in a compelling story. Its plot is driven by the arrival of a new character into a close community, stirring up the pot, always a good dramatic catalyst. It contrasts immature, reckless youth and growing old without fulfillment, one of the great themes in literature. It has three love stories and a plot that could bode tragedy for all of its characters who may not get what they desire. Most importantly, it is has an air of authenticity and authority, with Inge writing knowledgeably about small town Midwestern Kansas life very much like his boyhood home of Independence, Kansas.
The story takes place in an unnamed Kansas town on Labor Day, the time of the annual picnic. While neighbors Flo Owens and Helen Potts prepare their baskets, hunky drifter Hal Carter has gotten a job from tenderhearted Helen doing odd jobs around her house in exchange for breakfast. Hal, a former college football star who has not made good, has come in search of his fraternity brother, Alan Seymour, scion of one of the town’s most prosperous families. Ironically, Flo is the mother of the beautiful Madge, a recent high school graduate, who is Alan’s girlfriend, though Madge is uncomfortable around his college friends and bored by his having put her on a pedestal.
However, Hal, who has no trouble flaunting his physique or his virility, has galvanized all of the local women who display a love/hate relationship with the attractive and available young man: Flo who fears his presence for her daughters Madge and Millie; unmarried, aging spinster Helen who is aware of what she has missed in life; randy, though unmarried schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney; Madge who pretends to be disinterested in him; and her teenage sister Millie who is fascinated by his worldliness. Invited to the picnic as a date for Millie, Hal is immediately attracted to the beautiful Madge, while Rosemary is hoping for a proposal from her sometimes boyfriend, Howard Bevans, a local shopkeeper and perennial bachelor. Summer may be over, but Hal has brought much heat with him when he got off the train.
For Hal and Madge, Picnic requires a golden couple who generate enough passion to create their own summer storm. Newcomers Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The First Avenger and the USA miniseries Political Animals) and Maggie Grace (Taken, Taken 2, and Breaking Dawn: Part I and Part II) have the physical allure needed. Stan, who has his shirt off for most of Act I, has the washboard abs that all men envy and women desire. The blonde, statuesque Grace looks like she has stepped out of the fashion pages. When the two are in each other’s arms, they can’t keep their hands off each other. However, at other times when they are across the stage from each other, there is a coolness that sends no message to the audience. While both have an undeniable stage presence, they lack technique at this early stage of their careers.
Fortunately, director Sam Gold has surrounded them with experienced veterans who always keep the play interesting. Best is Marvel whose Off Broadway performances have led us to expect fireworks from her, and she does not disappoint. As Rosemary, the sexually predatory but unhappily single teacher at the high school, she not only dazzles with her inventiveness but makes the role the central one of the story. She makes every word and line register. Burstyn as the spinster Helen Potts, whose life revolves around taking care of an elderly bed-ridden mother, brings a sweetness and a resignation to her fate without being sorry for herself. Winningham makes Flo a more interesting character than she usually is: here, champing at the bit as a single parent whose late irresponsible husband is still remembered fondly by others, she adds a querulousness that suggests her dissatisfaction with her role as a woman who is expected to live only for her children. Her fear of Hal seems to be not only for her daughters but her own latent sexuality which has been put on ice since her husband’s death.
Reed Birney, returning to Broadway for the first time since 1977’s Gemini and a long, admired career in important Off Broadway plays, is excellent as the retiring and passive Howard who would rather continue with the status quo of his occasional relationship with Rosemary, rather than make a change in his life. Recently seen as Harper Regan’s daughter in the play of the same name earlier this season, Madeleine Martin does outstanding work as the tomboy Millie who matures into a young lady right before our eyes in the course of the play. Ben Rappaport can do little with the underwritten role of Alan but he also fails to suggest a background of inherited wealth and ease. On the other hand, Maddie Corman and Cassie Beck as two of Rosemary’s unmarried teaching colleagues twittering about clothes and luncheon are both amusing and right on target.
Director Gold’s work has been uneven until now, often attempting new approaches to old plays that are problematic. His Soho Rep revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in which the audience sat around the walls of the playing space as though in the family’s living room was widely acclaimed, while his Roundabout production of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger in which the action was moved to the footlights and the set appeared to be a huge blackboard behind the actors was roundly trounced. In Picnic, his directorial touches are very appropriate. He has used Andrew Lieberman’s magnificent naturalistic setting of the back porches and shared yard of Helen and Flo’s houses to show the life in Flo’s kitchen and staircase. He has also moved the action to the front half of the stage, giving the play an immediacy unconsciously felt by the audience. His work with the character roles in the play has been first-rate and the play’s brisk pacing is part of its success. This Picnic teems with life even from the characters who claim not to have any. Strangely, designer David Zinn has failed to use Madge’s four costume changes to show her development from girl to woman, although they are perfectly suitable in their way.
Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Picnic will disappoint those who come expecting unbridled passion, but will please those who are looking for an engrossing tale. Sam Gold’s production offers solid performances as well as Elizabeth Marvel in an exceptional one. It also introduces young stars Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan from whom much will be expected in the future.
Picnic (through February 24)
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org