Monday, November 14, 2011

Rattigan and Langella: Man and Boy

Virginia Kull, Frank Langella and Adam Driver in Man and Boy at New York’s Roundabout Theatre

The centenary of the British writer Terence Rattigan – one of the monarchs of the English stage before the “angry young man” movement made his approach to playwriting seem hopelessly old-fashioned in the mid-fifties and sixties – has brought several of his forgotten works to light. But Man and Boy, one of his last dramas, was rediscovered six years ago when Maria Aitken staged it in London. She has also helmed the current production at New York’s Roundabout Theatre. This is a fascinating play that doesn’t quite come off, but Frank Langella gives another in a string of tour de force stage and film performances in the starring role, which is written for a mesmerizing actor.

Langella plays Gregor Antonescu, an internationally known Romanian-born financier who faces ruin in the depths of the Depression when the chief accountant of the American company he has planned to merge with uncovers evidence of fraud in his books. (Antonescu is a figure of such fiscal power that the collapse of his company would pose a serious threat to world economy; you can see why the Roundabout thought this play might be of topical interest.) The play takes place in the Greenwich Village apartment of his son Vassily (Adam Driver), who has been estranged from his father for five years – since his eighteenth birthday, when he got a glimpse into Gregor’s shady dealings – and now works as a pianist at a bohemian bar under an Americanized version of his name, Basil Anthony. To explain his absence, Gregor has told everyone that his son is dead. Still, when Gregor needs a place to hide out and conduct a meeting with Mark Herries (Zach Grenier), the president of the American company, in the hope of salvaging the deal, he sends his trusted assistant, Sven (Michael Siberry), ahead to ask Basil for permission to use his digs. (Their relationship is somewhat reminiscent of the one between the social-climbing fake millionaire Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and his clerk, Croll.) Basil, whose hatred for his father has never quite eclipsed a holdover childlike adoration of him, allows him to appropriate the space for an hour and agrees to Gregor’s request that he refrain from playing the part of his son. What Basil doesn’t anticipate is that Gregor, who has learned that Herries is covertly gay, plans to give him the distinct impression that he is too, and that the attractive young piano player in whose apartment they’re meeting is his secret lover. Establishing a bond of forbidden sexuality – this is the thirties, after all – enables Antonescu to strengthen their alliance while he relies on sleight of hand to explain away the financial irregularity. His strategy works, but Basil is appalled. The first act ends with the boy declaring tensely, “You are nothing. You live and breathe and have being and you are my father – but you are nothing,” and storming out of the apartment.

Playwright Terence Rattigan
The play stops working, I think, in the second act when it becomes clear that aside from making convenient use of his son to disarm Herries, Gregor has continually acted with Basil out of a compulsion to alienate him because what he sees in the boy’s face is the conscience he has done everything in his power to deny he owns. But Basil’s sincere love for him keeps resurfacing no matter what Gregor does to kill it; he comes crawling back in act two. This psychological revelation is too pat to be convincing, and it smells of moralizing – a weakness of Rattigan’s. The play would be better if Antonescu really had a cold heart.

The production is only medium, but Langella’s galvanizing performance justifies it. In London in 2005, David Suchet played Antonescu as commanding, and his bullishness was exciting to watch. (Suchet also portrayed Melmotte in David Yates’s marvelous BBC dramatization of The Way We Live Now.) Langella approaches the role as high comedy, and his elegance and wit, swirling around the precisely calibrated behavior of a prodigious scam artist, are delightful. (If they stop short of being truly creepy, we need to blame Rattigan’s character construction.) He only miscalculates once: when Herries asks incredulously (and indirectly) if Gregor means him to understand that he’s sleeping with the apartment’s young tenant, Langella, perched on the arm of a couch, does something cleverly effeminate with his hand, and you feel he’s milking a cheap laugh.

Of the supporting cast, which also includes Brian Hutchison as the accountant and Francesca Faridany as Gregor’s fairly recent wife, only Siberry is particularly effective. Driver, who appeared in the Roundabout’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession last season (with Siberry), doesn’t seem to be a very good actor. Basil’s girl friend, Carol (Virginia Kull), who had no idea before tonight that he was the son of the now notorious financier, comments that it’s easy to tell how much he worships his father by the way he looks at him when he walks into the room. I couldn’t see it; Driver just looks uncomfortable. Grenier is great fun to watch on TV (24, The Good Wife), but on stage he always seems to be playing for the house. (He was hopelessly hambone as Beethoven in 33 Variations a couple of seasons ago.) The two actresses shouldn’t be faulted for the shortcomings in their performances since the two female roles are merely devices – Rattigan needs Carol to psychoanalyze her boy friend and the Countess, as Gregor’s wife is called, to demonstrate that Gregor’s son is the only person in his life whose love for him is genuine and unshakeable. (The last scene between Gregor and the Countess is straight out of melodrama.) But the production is handsome – notably Derek McLane’s set – and any show that furnishes a role this juicy for one of our greatest actors is a welcome addition to the New York theatre season.

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 Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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