When hoping for a dramatic change in your life, be careful what you wish for.
William Inge's 1953 Broadway hit, "Picnic," a subsequent Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama, is about how the Labor Day weekend arrival of a charismatic young drifter shakes up the lives of everyone he encounters in a small Kansas town. Some for the better, some for the worse.
The promise represented by attractive young people's fleeting opportunities, contrasted with several older women's generally unrealized dreams, is a major focus of the current Roundabout Theatre Company revival, which opened Sunday night in a polished, classy production at the American Airlines Theatre.
Inge might be amazed that his bittersweet examination of life's disappointments is here presented as a broader comedy, but director Sam Gold and the seasoned cast members mostly make it work. "Picnic" was one of Inge's four consecutive Broadway hits during the 1950s, which included "Come Back, Little Sheba," ''Bus Stop" and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs." Each was made into a popular Hollywood film as well, and all were about the circumscribed, yearning lives of small-town Midwesterners whose youthful hopes and later disappointments were universally recognizable.
Gold has overlaid humorous interpretations onto Inge's stilted and dated dialogue, often to good effect, while still keeping the period feel. If this technique doesn't help amp up the tension that should be building throughout the play, it makes for good entertainment on the handsomely detailed set of scuffed-up houses with a claustrophobic rusty-looking wall towering above.
That tension should be caused by the problematic romantic possibility between sheltered, beautiful and bored 18-year-old Madge Owens (Maggie Grace, a little stiff in her Broadway debut), and Hal Carter, (Sebastian Stan, relaxed, sexy and swaggering), the appealing but unsuitable drifter with a checkered past.
While there's not always onstage steaminess between this good-looking pair, they share a lovely, graceful dance together. Stan comes more to life when Hal finally provides some backstory, although initially he's just a sweaty, half-naked, eye-catching prop, strolling back and forth for the ladies to swoon over. Which many of them do, broadly and repeatedly.
Although the women fan themselves a lot, both to indicate late-summer hot weather and to convey Hal's effect on them, some of the most genuine onstage heat — aside from Hal's torso — comes from Elizabeth Marvel, portraying winking, wisecracking, single schoolteacher Rosemary with polished zeal.
When not openly gaping at Hal, Rosemary professes to love her carefree single life. Until, after some reckless drinking and wild dancing, Marvel nearly sears the stage with Rosemary's unexpectedly spiteful outburst against Hal. Marvel then turns Rosemary into a heart-wrenching, yet determined mess, as she pleads with her obviously reluctant beau Howard to marry her. Off-Broadway star Reed Birney, seeming at ease in his Broadway debut, skillfully portrays the conflicted, long-confirmed bachelor.
Ellen Burstyn is quite poignant as the Owens' older neighbor, Mrs. Potts, wistfully charming in her innocent enjoyment at the presence of a handsome young man. Burstyn, winner of an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Tony, is a constantly reassuring presence in a smaller but essential role.
Another seasoned actor put to good use is Mare Winningham as Madge's protective widowed mother, Flo. Winningham effectively broods and flounces and shoots fierce glares, as Flo anxiously tries to keep her wavering daughter on track to maximize her looks and reel in a wealthy young suitor.
Madeleine Martin is great fun as 14-year-old Millie Owens, spewing out the open honesty of a smart teenager in her strangely raspy yet high-pitched voice. As Madge's plainer sister, Martin easily handles the difficult mixture of a younger sibling's admiration and envy. Madge's adoring, well-to-do but conventional boyfriend, Alan, is played with earnest niceness by Ben Rappaport.
Not much happens until something finally happens, and then everything happens very quickly and the play ends in a rush, with Gold's nuanced ending putting a hopeful spin on Inge's original, generally downbeat outlook. Speaking about important life lessons Flo hopes to tell Madge, Mrs. Potts wisely points out, "Let her learn them for herself." Which is a chance everyone needs to take, however things may turn out.
On the surface, it’s a simple story: A cocky stud muffin moseys into a tiny Kansas town to visit a buddy and whips a family of women — and anyone with XX chromosomes — into a hot, steamy lather.
It’s about sex, duh.
But William Inge’s 1953 play, “Picnic,” has other things on its mind. Like the repression of small-town life and the straitjacket of conventions and the power and limits of physical beauty. It’s provocative, thoughtful stuff, and it helped win this play a Pulitzer Prize.
Sixty years later, Inge’s drama still resonates. Director Sam Gold’s rich and satisfying revival for the Roundabout showcases in a production packed with fine performances and detailed design.
On Labor Day, hunky good-for-nothing Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan) drifts into the backyard and the lives of Flo Owens (Mare Winningham, touching as ever) and her two daughters. Millie (Madeleine Martin) is a brainy tomboy who plans to live in New York (and there’s every reason to think she’ll get there). Madge (Maggie Grace) is the town beauty, but barely made it out of high school and works in a five-and-dime store.
Flo knows Madge’s future depends on leveraging a pretty face into a marriage proposal from the rich but bland Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport). Madge is 18. The clock is ticking. “A pretty girl doesn’t have long,” says Flo, “just a few years when she’s the equal of kings and can walk out of a shanty like this....”
But after dancing with Hal, Madge has other plans. Enough said.
The beauty of Gold’s staging direction is the way he uses foreground and background and the interior of the Owens home, seen only through windows. It creates texture and dimension, a real sense of life.
He’s also assembled a wonderful ensemble, including Reed Birney as a die-hard bachelor, Ellen Burstyn as an unmarried woman with an ailing mother, and especially Elizabeth Marvel, who gives a gutsy performance as an aging spinster.
Stan (“Gossip Girl,” “Captain America”) has the right rugged looks for Hal, played by William Holden in the ’55 film. He’s a character built to be objectified as beefcake and to sizzle in shirtless scenes. Beefy Stan rivals the porterhouses at Peter Luger’s and he brings out Hal’s vulnerable side.
Even better is Grace, a coltish blonde known for movies, including “Taken” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.” She’s a natural onstage. Her work is assured and understated and brings an air of introspection to Madge.
You want a happy ending for her. Odds are her life won’t end up being a picnic.
In William Inge’s bittersweet 1953 hit “Picnic,” a hunky charmer appears out of nowhere to unsettle the women of a small Kansas town — especially the local beauty, aimless and bored with her boyfriend. The actors playing The Drifter and The Ingenue need to deliver in the physical department, and in this new Roundabout revival, they certainly do.
Maggie Grace (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” “Taken”) has a coltish, leggy elegance as Madge Owens. Sebastian Stan (“Captain America”), the dreamy outsider Hal Carter, isn’t shy about showing off his chiselled torso, which is good because Hal’s keeps losing his shirt or having it torn off him.
Too bad they share youth and good looks, but no sizzle — there’s more sexual chemistry among the cast of “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”
Luckily, director Sam Gold (“Seminar”) also hired the experienced Ellen Burstyn, Mare Winningham, Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel, who expertly handle the shifts from comedy to drama, and back again.
The action of “Picnic,” such as it is, takes place over 24 summer hours in a cozy backyard. (Andrew Lieberman’s realistic set is so homey, you wish you could hang out in it.)
When Hal pops up out of nowhere, Helen Potts (Burstyn) puts him to work clearing trash, and mischievously ogles his sweaty, glistening pecs as Stan puts himself through what looks like a heartland-themed routine from “Magic Mike.”
Equally enthralled by Hal’s free spirit — and bod — is Madge, who suddenly loses interest in her wealthy milquetoast of a beau (Ben Rappaport).
Not much happens in Inge’s tranquil Midwestern world, or at least not much happens by way of plot. We don’t even see the title’s event, which takes place offstage, and these folks aren’t prone to chatty introspection. Inge just makes us understand them in an intimate, deceptively simple way.
In the right hands, though, his seemingly innocuous lines become revealing, as when Birney’s graying salesman, Howard Bevans, notes of the nubile Madge, “When the good Lord made a girl as pretty as she is, He did it for a reason, and it’s about time she found out what that reason is.” His voice has an edge of pervy frustration, and when Howard dances with Madge a little later, it feels creepy.
It’s a pleasure to watch the supposedly supporting cast take ownership of these characters. Winningham has a lovely, plain warmth as the protective mother of Madge and her bookish kid sister, Millie (Madeleine Martin); Burstyn nicely underplays Mrs. Potts’ roving eyes.
But it’s Marvel (“Other Desert Cities”) who waltzes off with the show as Rosemary Sydney, who’s long been dating Howard.
Making the most of her throaty low register, Marvel channels Rosalind Russell as the rowdy, cigarette-puffing “old maid schoolteacher.”
But then Rosemary crumbles, literally falling down on her knees, begging Howard to marry her. It’s the show’s most painful moment, and the most mesmerizing.
Spray washboard abs with oil all you want — that’s what theater is all about.
The Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of William Inge’s “Picnic” opened on Sunday night, starring an exceptionally well-developed torso. Of course the torso belongs to a person, the actor Sebastian Stan. But it has been given the kind of lavish individual attention that would seem to warrant above-the-title billing.
As impeccably chiseled and hairless as a marble statue by Praxiteles, this leading body part is not merely decorative. It’s the catalyst that sets the plot a-boiling in Sam Gold’s stultifying interpretation of Inge’s time-yellowed 1953 drama of a lusty, dusty Labor Day in a small Kansas town. (The show runs through Feb. 24 at the American Airlines Theater.)
Presented au naturel or in a tight shirt ripped at the chest by an admirer (leaving a strategic view of a nipple), it’s a sight that arouses dangerous longings in lonely bosoms. From the moment it makes its first entrance, this is a torso named Trouble.
Mind you, it faces stiff competition from an exquisitely shaped pair of legs, the property of Maggie Grace, whose face ain’t so bad either. (Ms. Grace plays the gal who gets the torso.) Those legs — and that face! — stir up a heap of trouble all by themselves. But since there are more than twice as many women as men in the cast of characters, I guess you’d have to concede victory to the torso.
Before you accuse me of crassly objectifying people cursed with physical attractiveness, I should point out that such objectification is a major theme of “Picnic,” which seemed the last word in sexual frankness when it opened on Broadway 60 years ago, featuring the torso of one Paul Newman. (William Holden’s torso starred, opposite the face of Kim Novak, in the 1955 film version.)
“What good is it to be pretty?” asks Madge Owens (Ms. Grace), the town’s reigning beauty, of her pragmatic mother, Flo (the excellent Mare Winningham). “Well,” Flo answers, “pretty things, like flowers and sunsets and rubies — and pretty girls too — they’re like billboards telling us that life is good.”
It’s not easy being pretty, though. Madge — who is going steady with the town rich boy, Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport) — is tired of being stared at. So it must come as a relief when Hal Carter (Mr. Stan), a handsome hobo, shows up next door, doing odd jobs for old Mrs. Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn, no less), one of the neighborhood’s many women without men.
Once Hal takes off his shirt — which happens before you can say Van Heusen — everybody stops looking at Madge for a while. (“Who’s the young man?” says Rosemary, the old-maid schoolteacher played by Elizabeth Marvel, in a rumbling baritone voice.) Since both Madge and Hal get all dreamy when they hear the whistle of a train goin’ places, you immediately gather that they are soul mates, though it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that soul, in this case, is skin deep.
More than any version of “Picnic” I’ve seen this one, which has been designed with period exactitude by Andrew Lieberman (set) and David Zinn (costumes), highlights the role of prettiness as both a burden and an aspiration. I’ve never been quite as aware of how much everyone in “Picnic” wants to be attractive, and how much talk there is among even the minor characters of transformative beauty products and new clothes.
Madge says that “looking in the mirror” is “the only way I can prove to myself I’m alive.” And Mr. Gold’s staging includes an evocative vignette of two middle-aged women, on different sides of the stage, examining themselves clinically in their compact mirrors.
But for “Picnic” to hold our attention, we have to sense the hormones that lurk beneath the skin. This is, after all, a classic cock-in-a-henhouse play, in which a handsome, testosterone-trailing stranger bursts into a world of feminine repression.
Hal, who turns out to have been a former frat brother of Alan, summons uneasy memories in Flo of Madge’s no-good, long-gone father. And he sets off chemical reactions in not only Madge but also her smart kid sister, Millie (the megaphone-voiced Madeleine Martin) and Rosemary, the Owens’s boarder, who pretends to be happily independent but really just wants a man to call her own (specifically, her sometime boyfriend, Howard Bevans, played by a nicely understated Reed Birney).
No wonder Hal says, in a declaration that uncomfortably sums up this play’s prevailing sensibility, “I tell you, Seymour, women are getting desperate.” Ms. Marvel, usually the best thing in any show she’s in, embraces that description with an embarrassing vengeance, giving an over-the-top performance that suggests vintage Lily Tomlin (I mean in “Laugh-In,” not “Nashville”).
It is Rosemary who, after a few swigs of contraband liquor, tears that peek-a-boo hole in Hal’s shirt, leading to new possibilities for ogling. His body, though, is so gym-trainer perfect that it’s hard to credit to a guy who’s been living rough on the road.
Mr. Stan (Bucky Barnes in “Captain America: The First Avenger”), whose line readings exude a tortured adolescent innocence, mostly registers as more of an objet d’art than a sex object. Ms. Grace (of the “Taken” movies) embodies Madge’s small-town self-consciousness with an appealing ease.
But except for in one dance sequence (nicely staged by Chase Brock), when Madge and Hal discover a shared rhythm, there’s not much chemistry flowing between these two. Even clawing at each other’s clothes, they somehow seem to be lost in their own, isolating thoughts.
The same might be said of the cast as a whole. Which means that, lacking an electric current to invisibly connect its characters, this “Picnic” remains little more than a billboard for prettiness.
It's been 60 years since "Picnic" premiered on Broadway. But as Roundabout Theatre's anniversary revival proves, art, like life, isn't fair. Some of us age better than others.
Though William Inge won a Pulitzer Prize for "Picnic," it's never been successfully revived. Director Sam Gold and a plausible cast gamely attempt to recapture the traumas of small-town life that anchored Inge's four acclaimed plays: Besides "Picnic," he wrote "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Bus Stop" and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs." His trademark: women whose lives are defined by men. That hierarchy ruled gender identity in postwar, pre-feminist America.
Meet Flo Owens, deceptively low-key as played by Mare Winningham, and her daughters: beauty queen Madge (lissome Maggie Grace) and brainy tomboy Millie (restless Madeleine Martin), each jealous of the other's asset. Widowed long ago, Flo sublets a room to get by. Spinster schoolteacher Rosemary, played with veiled desperation by Elizabeth Marvel, is her tenant. It's Labor Day. Rosemary and Millie return to school tomorrow; Madge to her dime-store job.
Another widow, next-door neighbor Mrs. Potts -- played by Ellen Burstyn with wistful nostalgia for a man in the house -- is engineering a picnic. Madge's beau, Alan (Ben Rappaport), scion of the richest family in this Kansas burg, is invited. But he's not the star attraction. That would be Hal, the hunk drifter Mrs. Potts "hired" (breakfast was his wage) to tidy her yard. Hal works up such a sweat that he doffs his shirt to reveal a chiseled torso. Every female in the yard notices, though Madge pretends not to. It turns out that Hal, specimen in masculinity -- physically and emotionally as embodied by Sebastian Stan -- was Alan's college frat brother before flunking out.
When Rosemary's diffident suitor (slippery Reed Birney) shows up with a pint of bootleg whiskey, social pretense goes down the hatch. Two couples never make it to the picnic. We're not telling, but . . .
Set designer Andrew Lieberman's backyard, with its voyeuristic boardinghouse peek, looks authentic -- as do David Zinn's '50s costumes. But Lieberman's industrial backdrop ruins the open-plains environment, even with Jane Cox's day-night lighting.
As if the art of conversation was as obsolete as the theater-lobby pay phones, Act I's idle chatter reveals an actor-to-actor inability to connect. Only when yelling commences does the cast wake up and smell the roles. And do they ever. Acts II and III give us a hint of why Inge, who committed suicide in 1973, was considered a literary lion.
"Ma'am, is it all right if I start a fire?" asks Hal Carter, the handsome young drifter in William Inge's Picnic, while doing chores for an older woman.
It's a rhetorical question, at least in the figurative sense; for Hal, having wandered into a small, sleepy Kansas town just in time for its Labor Day festivities, already has lit a match under the lonely ladies who occupy the yard shared by the aforementioned Helen Potts and Flo Owens, a middle-aged single mom. Mrs. Potts, who lives with her elderly mother, is clearly titillated, as are Rosemary Sydney, the spinster schoolteacher boarding with Flo, and both of Flo's teenage daughters.
And who can blame them? Hal spends a good chunk of the first act shirtless; and in the Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival, which opened Sunday at the American Airlines Theatre, leading man Sebastian Stan struts around with his flesh glistening as if he'd been oiling it all day.
Suffice it to say that this production, directed by Sam Gold, doesn't take pains to camouflage the Pulitzer Prize-winning play's dated qualities. Sixty years after Picnic was first staged, the idea that a guy who, frankly, comes across as a brawny blowhard could awaken a bunch of old and young maids to their womanly needs seems, to put it charitably, a bit quaint.
But there is ultimately more to Hal, and his appeal, than appearances suggest; and Gold and his supple cast mine the conflicting, often repressed passions of these Midwestern folk without demeaning them.
The company includes a number of esteemed veterans, from Ellen Burstyn to New York stage favorites Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel. But the younger players are similarly impressive, particularly Maggie Grace, making a lovely Broadway debut as Flo's elder girl, Madge, the town babe and the steady of Hal's more privileged, settled college friend.
As Hal and Madge fall reluctantly but furiously for each other, Grace and Stan capture the frenzied enchantment, hope and fear of young lovers living in a certain era, under certain socioeconomic circumstances. As Hal recognizes the longing under Madge's beauty, Grace manages an emotional delicacy and transparency that make their scenes as bittersweet as they are sultry.
Madeleine Martin turns in a piquant, touching performance as Millie, Madge's sassier, brainier little sister, who, like her sibling, yearns to be admired for more than just her most obvious assets. Mare Winningham's weary, wary Flo and Burstyn's rosy Mrs. Potts prove fine foils as women who have wound up on their own for very different reasons, and thus react to Hal very differently.
Marvel is a more fervid presence as Rosemary, whose air of cavalier independence masks a growing desperation that explodes after a night with her businessman beau, Birney's droll but tender Howard Bevans. Rosemary envisions, terrified, a time when "there's no one left to care for me, whether I'm nice to him or not."
If such lamentations show Picnic's age, the play's more general emphasis on the power of connection and acceptance still resonates.
A case might be made for reviving "Picnic," the play that won William Inge a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for his bittersweet portrait of mid-century American life in a small, narrow-minded Kansas town. (Something darker, perhaps, than the swoony romanticism that Joshua Logan profitably mined from the play for his 1955 movie with William Holden and Kim Novak.) But helmer Sam Gold fails to make any case at all with this clumsy production for the Roundabout, which reduces Inge's characters to broad caricatures and finds more comedy than pathos in their lives of quiet desperation.
The American heartland, circa 1950s, admittedly looks mighty pretty in Andrew Lieberman's idealized setting of a sunny backyard shared by two adjacent clapboard houses. But, like Jill BC Du Boff's over-bright lighting, the gaudy effect is uncomfortably close to a cartoon.
One smart design feature is the generous interior of the larger house, where Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) lives with her two daughters -- Madge (the pretty one woodenly played by Maggie Grace) and Millie (the smart one played in a grating voice by Madeleine Martin) -- and rents out rooms to single ladies. Although the huge bulk of the house narrows the playing area, the rambling interior lends perspective depth to this crowded house bustling with women.
As he does in all his plays, Inge takes pity on these women, whose busy activities can't disguise the essential emptiness of their lives. The postwar era may have been a boom time for the American economy, but it held out limited options for women.
Older women like Flo and her next-door neighbor Mrs. Helen Potts (the sweet-faced Ellen Burstyn) have long resigned themselves to long nights in empty beds. And if an "old maid" like Rosemary Sydney (Elizabeth Marvel, forgetting herself and spiraling over the top) fails to trap an unwary suitor like Howard Bevans (saved from becoming ridiculous by Reed Birney's sincerity), she'd better resign herself to the loveless life of a schoolteacher.
A brainy girl like Millie has a 50-50 chance of finding a brighter life in the nearest big city (in this play, that would be Tulsa). And if a raving beauty like Madge plays her cards right, she might make a good marriage to a nice boy like Alan Seymour (played by a disinterested-looking Ben Rappaport) before her looks fade.
But the window of opportunity for young ladies is a narrow one, as Flo advises her older daughter in a moment of insight that Winningham plays with penetrating self-awareness. A pretty girl of 18 may enjoy a carefree summer. "But next summer you'll be nineteen and then twenty and then twenty-one and then 40" -- and that's the edge of the cliff.
So long as women stick to their designated roles, the town's patriarchal social balance is safe. Which is why the whole neighborhood is shaken up when a dangerously handsome stranger blows into town.
As drawn by Inge, Hal Carter is a natural-born hunk who is comfortable in his manhood and discomfited by the effect he has on men and women both. In Sebastian Stan's self-conscious performance, he's the product of a 21st-century gym with an ill-calibrated tanning room.
The hapless thesps dutifully play their designated roles in simultaneously deifying and demonizing Hal for his potent sexuality. But instead of conveying the pathos of this charismatic but lonely stranger and the smitten women who lose their inhibitions over him, the thrust of this production is to make sure that everyone looks positively ridiculous.