Monday, February 11, 2013

Picnic: Sexual Confusion in a Small Kansas Town

Sebastian Stan, Maggie Grace and Ellen Burstyn (back) in Picnic (All Photos by Joan Marcus)

William Inge was a medium-range playwright with a talent for getting at the way sex makes people of all ages restless and sometimes desperately unhappy. That was his subject, and he explored it in different forms in Come Back, Little Sheba and the movies The Stripper (fashioned on his failed play A Loss of Roses) and Splendor in the Grass. But he never got closer to it than in Picnic, which was a hit on Broadway in 1953 and again two years later as a movie starring William Holden and Kim Novak. (Joshua Logan directed both, but his inexperience behind a camera gives him away in the movie, which is clunky and overwrought.) Picnic, which is currently enjoying an engrossing revival, directed by Sam Gold, at the Roundabout Theatre, is set on Labor Day (the occasion of the annual local picnic) in a dead-end Kansas town where the dry laws and the banning of “degenerate” books like The Ballad of the Sad Café from the local library reflect the repressed, restricted lives of the disappointed characters. The play is about sexuality in the days just before rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis Presley brought it to the surface of American culture. A twenty-ish Arkansas-born drifter named Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan, who played Bucky Barnes in Captain America) wanders into town, hoping he can land a job with the help of his moneyed college roommate, Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport, in the role that Paul Newman originated, in his stage debut). Alan was the only person who ever treated him decently at the fraternity that only admitted him to benefit from the prestige of having a gifted athlete on its roster. Hal immediately draws the attention of Alan’s girl friend, Madge Owens (Maggie Grace, of TV’s Lost). She’s working-class and she’s employed at the five-and-dime, but she’s the prettiest girl in town, so – as her mother, Flo (Mare Winningham), understands – she has a ticket into the local aristocracy if Alan marries her. (The play’s secondary subject is class.) But Alan doesn’t turn her on the way Hal does.

Ellen Burstyn, Ben Rappaport and Maggie Grace
The cast of characters in Picnic is mostly female, and Hal’s appearance sends all the major ones into a tailspin; he’s like a rock that cracks the surface of a serene-seeming pond, sending ripples all around it. When Flo’s next-door neighbor, Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn), hires him to clean her yard for the price of a home-cooked breakfast, she’s dazzled by the sight of his glistening torso as he works bare-chested in the sun. (Stan mines the comic possibilities of the scenes where he gets to show off his muscles.) Helen lives alone with her nagging invalid mother – a voluble offstage presence – whom she’s never forgiven for wrecking her one chance at happiness, when she had Helen’s runaway marriage annulled. But she’s not a bitter woman; she enjoys the presence of young folks without resenting them for reflecting her own dashed hopes. Her opposite number is Rosemary Sydney (Elizabeth Marvel), who teaches secretarial skills classes at the high school and boards with the Owens family. Rosemary’s good-time-gal humor and forthrightness mask – not very well – her terror that, at about forty, she’s let romance pass her by. She makes self-deprecating jokes about being an old-maid schoolteacher and crows that she sends her beau packing as soon as they get serious. But when, in a holiday mood, Hal starts to dance with Madge, Rosemary gets so furious that he’s not paying attention to her that she paralyzes the boy with a vicious tirade, oiled somewhat by the illicit booze her shopkeeper boy friend, Howard Bevans (Reed Birney), has smuggled in.

Madge’s mother and kid sister Millie (Madeleine Martin) are also affected in their distinctive ways by Hal’s arrival. Millie, a bookish tomboy of about thirteen, feels hopelessly inadequate next to her beauty-contest-winning older sister, though Madge envies Millie’s intelligence. Millie has to endure the insults of local boys who compare her looks to Madge’s, like the paper boy Bomber Gutzel (a miscast Chris Perfetti). But on this Labor Day, her mother has sewn a pretty dress for her, and she’s over the moon when she puts it on. (This dress, like all of David Zinn’s costumes, is a perfect footnote to both the period and the character. I especially liked the soft pink-and-black print shirt Alan wears on his first entrance, which looks comfortable but just a tad too fancy for the occasion, suggesting the unconscious ostentation of a rich boy in a tiny town. Zinn ties the locals together, especially the women, with a subtle pink motif that also hints at the idea of summer passing all too quickly, with its accompanying symbolic meaning.) At first Millie resents Alan’s pairing her off with his fraternity pal for the picnic – to her, a red flag announcing that she can’t find her own escort – but affable Hal is genuinely friendly to her and she likes him. So when he becomes fixated on Madge, she feels that once again she’s been shoved into the background by her sister. And Flo, whose own husband ran out on her, projects her memories of his nickel-plated charms onto Hal and becomes panicked when he threatens her plans for a better life for her daughter.

Mare Winningham and Maggie Grace
I enjoyed the Roundabout production very much, though it has its peccadilloes. For one thing, Andrew Lieberman’s set design draws attention to itself in a rather puzzling way. The Owens house is presented in a kind of bas-relief against a massive brown fence, as if it were attached to it; you miss the Kansas sky. If Lieberman’s idea is to underscore the theme of small-town entrapment, it’s a miscalculation – overstated and incongruous. Gold handles the comedy effectively and the love scene between Stan and Grace generates real heat, but when the tone gets serious he sometimes misses the turn-off into drama and steers it into melodrama. The scene where Rosemary turns on Hal is overplayed – and it doesn’t help that Gold botches the staging of the dance that precipitates it, to “For Sentimental Reasons,” which looks so awkward that when Mrs. Potts exclaims that Hal and Madge look magical together when they cut the rug, you scratch your head. (In the movie William Holden – somewhat superannuated for the role of Hal – and the ineffably touching Kim Novak move together to Artie Shaw’s “Moonglow,” and it truly is magical, the only terrific moment in the whole picture.) And occasionally Gold undermines Stan and Grace, who do generally excellent work. Stan gets the push-pull of Hal’s boldness, which borders on a kind of guileless insolence and boasting (a result of trying too damn hard to impress people) and his easy humiliation when he says or does the wrong thing and feels he’s given himself away: his father died in prison, and Hal is terrified that he’ll never be anything but a bum. And Grace, who has been underwhelming in her television and movie appearances, makes her bones with this delicate portrayal of a small-town belle who knows how to coast on the advantages the world accords to the beautiful (you feel it in the way she dons shades to sunbathe in the yard) but at eighteen already sees the ways in which her looks can hem her into a life she’s instinctually resisting. But when these two characters move toward each other at the end of act two, just before intermission, the tone goes off, though Grace recovers it when Madge plants a kiss on his lips that astonishes her as much as it does him. Gold errs in letting Stan have a meant-to-be Brando moment in the final scene, when he screams out his frustration that his efforts at climbing out of his father’s legacy always fail. And at the end – after Hal begs Madge to run away with him (Alan has sets the cops on his tail) and Madge lets him go without her – when she cries to her mother, “What do you do with the love you feel?,” Gold has her shout it, which is the wrong impulse. When Jane Krakowski played the role in the last major revival of this play, at Williamstown in 1991, it was plaintive, and the moment – my favorite in the script – just broke your heart. Gold needs to encourage his young actors to underplay more than he does.

But if Gold isn’t at his best with the Hal-Madge pas de deux, there are some wonderful moments in the staging, like their clandestine early-morning farewell at the side of the house early in the third act. (Jane Cox’s lighting is at its loveliest here, where the only illumination is from a street lamp stage right and the still-burning bulb on Helen Potts’s porch, reflected in the kitchen window of the Owens house.) And when Hal returns to ask Madge to come away with him, Gold stages an affecting painterly tableau, with the lovers again stage right and the two protesters to the match watching helplessly – Flo on her porch, Alan next to Helen on her porch, looking away in agony. As an accent stage left he adds Rosemary’s colleague Irma Kronkite (Maddie Corman), eavesdropping at the front door of Flo’s house.

I didn’t care much for Burstyn’s mugging – it’s this actress’s fallback, even at this point in a career that goes back four decades -- and Madeleine Martin doesn’t catch Millie’s quirkiness. (She also sounds too contemporary, and her vocal choice, nasality, wears out fast.) But Rappaport gives a first-rate reading of Alan. He comprehends that Alan is simultaneously mesmerized by Hal – whose recklessness he wishes he had the nerve to emulate and whose by-the-way sexual adventures are the stuff of his fantasies (when Hal relates a story of being picked up by a pair of “babes” in a car who offer him martinis and weed and both want to fuck him, Rappaport’s Alan almost moans when he asks, “Why don’t those things ever happen to me?”) – and embarrassed by him. Hal was a godsend as a roommate for this busting-out-of-his-skin rich kid – a boy we see is paralyzed by his girl friend’s beauty but is too shy and well brought up to try to sleep with her – but when he shows up in his home town and doesn’t know when to shut up, Alan looks like he wants to douse him with cold water.

Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel
In the depiction of Inge’s foils, Rosemary and Flo, the production is at its worst and at its best. The role of Rosemary is the play’s biggest challenge; an actor has to work hard to combat the masochism inherent in it. Around the time Picnic opened on Broadway, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley Booth were brilliant at playing this sort of part. I don’t know how Eileen Heckart was in the original version, but in the movie Rosalind Russell throws herself shamelessly at it, and Marvel (who is much better as FDR’s secretary in the Christmas release Hyde Park on Hudson) falls into the Russell trap. At Williamstown, Blythe Danner bypassed the pathetic-spinster quality and got right at the rage the character isn’t even aware she’s banking until Hal turns down the offer to dance with her. Danner is a genius, so it isn’t fair to compare another actress to her, but whoever plays the role needs that sort of trap door; I wish Gold and Marvel had found one.

On the other hand, Mare Winningham is magnificent as Flo Owens. Winningham works all the time, on TV and in movies and on the stage (she’s also a singer-songwriter), but she’s rarely mentioned among our finest actresses. Yet she always has been – ever since she starred in Lamont Johnson’s TV film Off the Minnesota Strip in 1980. (I haven’t seen the picture, which isn’t on DVD and never shows up on television, in about thirty years, but I haven’t forgotten the scene where Winningham’s teenage hooker sings “Just My Imagination” to herself in lock-up as a kind of childlike comfort – just as the orphaned boy Vito Corleone, isolated at Ellis Island in The Godfather, Part II, begins to rock himself.) Her Flo has a western-tinged voice that contains as many colors as a summer garden, and though there’s nothing specific about her visually that signals the period, somehow she carries it in her face and in her bearing. Actresses tend to press on Flo’s unhappiness, to sour her, but Winningham brings out her humor – her kidding side – and her pride in her own good looks (she has an enduring elegance that suggests Madge came by hers honestly) as well as her daughter’s. And her last scene truly soars, from the moment when she answer’s Madge’s “What do you do with the love you feel?” with a stuttering, baffled “I never found out” through her fervent attempt to reel Alan back in after he walks away defeated to the shattering moment, for Flo, when Madge reappears with a suitcase and says that the only thing she can do is go after the man she’s fallen in love with. Winningham hurls a half-hysterical warning at Madge that her future with Hal is going to turn out as badly as her own did with Madge’s father; then, frantically, she tries to stop her from leaving by grabbing hold of the suitcase. It’s a deeply emotional scene, and it shakes you. The Roundabout Picnic is well worth seeing, but nothing in it opens up the way her performance does. It is, I suspect, unforgettable

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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