by William Inge
Directed by Sam Gold
Starring Reed Birney, Maggie Grace, Elizabeth Marvel,
Sebastian Stan, Mare Winningham and Ellen Burstyn
A Production of The Roundabout Theatre Company
at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

I’m not much of a William Inge aficionado; I find his plays of small town sexual repression overwrought and of debatable veracity (a charged opinion for another time and context), but at least, with so much time having passed since he wrote them in the 1950s, they’ve stopped seeming quaintly dated ands now seem more like notable artifacts of an era. Worth watching too, if they’re done well enough, and the new Roundabout production of Picnic, directed by Sam Gold, is delivered well indeed.

            The back porch-and-yard drama—well, more of a comedy-drama, but too earnest for out-and-out comedy—features in the center, a triangle: a handsome, roamin’ bad boy come back to town (Sebastian Stan); a handsome good boy, a town mainstay on the rise (Ben Rappaport); and the hot young girl “going” with the second but drawn to the first (Maggie Grace). The surrounding orbit is occupied by family: the girl’s youner, jealous, supposedly less-pretty sister (Madeleine Martin) and their Mom (Mare Winningham). And the outer orbit by neighbors and borders: the old maid schoolteacher with the secret life (Elizabeth Marvel), the nondescript store owner who wants to keep it a secret (Reed Birney); and the grandmotherly lady-next-door who remembers the old days and thinks young people are just amazing (Ellen Burstyn). All hands deliver their roles with conviction, craft and varying credibility.

            I say varying because this is an odd time to present Picnic in terms of period accuracy. In the 50s, young men, no matter how strapping, didn’t have the sculpted torsos of latter-day workouts; not the ones we saw on stage and in films anyway. And many of the hunks were really just good looking character men. In the original Picnic, the wayward bad boy was played by Ralph Meeker, who had a swagger and a smirk that would later see him playing blue collar and tough guy roles like P.I. Mike Hammer in Kiss Me, Deadly. And the stalwart good boy was played by Paul Newman, about whom little more need be said.

            By contrast, the Mssrs. Stan and Rappaport in this 2013 cast, are much more of the pretty boy type that pervades TV and films today. They may be interesting in their own ways, but neither of them (at least not yet) has the kind of distinct idiosyncrasy that presages a mold-breaking, self-defining persona that transcends type. This is not meant as criticism but as observation of a cultural phenomenon. There are casting types that don’t really exist anymore, not in their pure form, and they can’t be recreated because biology defeats the attempt. We take better care of ourselves these days—certainly most actors do—with the result that we look younger for a longer time. That added edge of a young, handsome buck seeming a little weathered, a little lived-in, more psychologically filled out, usually doesn’t inform his physical appearance until his 30s. At which point, in our 2013 perception, he becomes too old to pass for 20.

            That subtle disjunct between the play’s era and the reality of 2013 is always, quietly nibbling at the verisimilitude of this revival, and the revival never completely succeeds in making you forget it’s there. So there’s this hovering back-of-the-mind niggle at unwanted moments reminding you that you’re watching people pretending.

            I don’t know how you conquer it. Well, I do, but that too is nothing anyone can control. You have to be too young to care…or remember…

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