Monday, November 4, 2013

Obscure Inge, Mid-Range Rattigan: Natural Affection and The Winslow Boy

Alec Beard and Kathryn Erbe in Natural Affection

The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), in residence at Theater Row on 42nd Street, is one of several off-Broadway companies that make it a practice to resurrect forgotten American plays. Last season it produced a post-war Anita Loos play called Happy Birthday set in a New Jersey bar that contained a strange interlude in which the audience was put literally in the point of view of the protagonist, who is drunk for the first time in her life. When she burrowed under one of the tables, hiding from her fearful father, a piece of canvas flew out over the audience and there we were, camped out under the tablecloth alongside her. Happy Birthday isn’t much of a play, but this scene is a fascinating piece of homegrown Yankee expressionism, and I was grateful to TACT for offering a rare glimpse of it. And I was grateful again last month when it mounted a strikingly well-acted production of William Inge’s Natural Affection, which had the bad luck to open in 1973 during a newspaper strike, closed in a month, and hadn't been unearthed since. (It was the last Inge play produced in his lifetime; he killed himself late that year, days before his final work, The Last Pad, opened in Los Angeles.)

Natural Affection is set over Christmas week in a Chicago apartment shared by Sue (Kathryn Erbe, in a role Inge wrote for Kim Stanley) and Bernie (Alec Beard). He’s a car salesman who hasn’t married Sue, he says, because he’s not in a financial position to do so. A buyer for a department store, she pulls down a higher salary than he does and generally pays their rent, which makes him feel like an also-ran – and may fuel his occasional infidelity with Claire (Victoria Mack), their next-door neighbor, whose husband Vince (John Pankow) is his work-out buddy. The tensions among this quartet of characters are exacerbated by the appearance of Sue’s son Donnie (Chris Bert), on leave from the work farm he was sent to for stealing a car. Donnie’s father split when Sue got pregnant – they weren’t married – and, poor and alone, she didn’t feel she had the wherewithal to raise him, so she put him in an orphanage and has always felt guilty about it. Now she’s desperate to make this family reunion work; she’s hoping that Bernie will step up and fill the void vacated by Donnie’s dad, though she’s uneasy about his moodiness and his temper. (She keeps warning Donnie not to upset him.) And Donnie is hoping that he can parlay this Christmas visit into something permanent because – though he hasn’t told his mother – if she’s willing to give him a home then the work farm will let him out before he serves out his final six months.

William Inge's Natural Affection

The play has the Inge virtues: sensitivity, interesting characters, complex psychology. Its problem is that there’s a little too much going on for a satisfying exploration over the course of a mere two hours. Vince is a drunk with repressed homosexual feelings for Bernie; Donnie has a violent side that surfaces in the final scene and his feelings for his mother are implicitly incestuous. Her guilt isn’t just over having failed to raise him, but also over not having wanted him in the first place. I would have cut the violence, which is unconvincing, and certainly the crypto-incest, which, in the modern theatre, at least, tends to play as melodrama. (The Jacobean playwright John Ford made it work in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.) It doesn’t help here that Bert is the weak link in a strong cast: he doesn’t suggest the hidden menace at odds with his desire to please his mother, so his explosion in the finale isn’t built on anything we’ve actually seen. (We do hear about previous, though less radical, eruptions.)

It’s an intriguing, if not entirely successful, play, and director Jenn Thompson and the actors do fine work establishing the layered relationships. I found myself wishing they’d slowed down the pace a little; the show moves so fast that some of the shifts get elided, especially for Erbe, who has a lot of ground to cover. But she gives a fine performance as a woman who has managed to rise in a man’s world but who shows the strain at home, where she’s constantly stretching herself in an effort to plug up the holes in her emotional life. Inge has overwritten some of Sue’s dialogue, but Erbe makes it sound completely natural. Beard illuminates all the corners of his character, a man’s man with a fear of coming up inadequate, and Mack is excellent as a woman whose natural mode with men is flirtatiousness. These two roles are close enough to types that it’s easy to underrate the performers’ achievement with them. And whatever Bert’s shortcomings (in a role that probably doesn’t work anyway), he has one of the best scenes in the production, when he gives Sue her Christmas present, a tray he made for her in woodworking class. He’s so nervous that he almost takes it back, but she’s genuinely touched by the gift, and her enthusiasm turns out to be difficult for him to handle – he bursts into tears and rushes into the corridor. Thompson stages the moment beautifully, and John McDermott has designed the ideal set to make it work. His set is remarkable for providing a detailed cross-section of the life that goes on not just in Sue and Bernie’s apartment but in their corner of the apartment building. And David Toser’s costumes, especially for the two women, comment perceptively on the characters.

John Pankow and Alec Beard in Natural Affection

Foremost among the many reasons to see Natural Affection was John Pankow’s portrayal of Vince. Just as Erbe is best known for playing opposite Vincent D’Onofrio on TV’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Pankow is most familiar to audiences from Mad About You, even though his New York stage résumé includes the mid-eighties revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards and the superb Broadway retrenching of Twelve Angry Men in 2004. Like all of the principal characters in the play, Vince feels his life hasn’t led him to the place he wants to be: he’s fifty, stuck in a miserable marriage, and terrified that he doesn’t know how to love anyone. He conceals all this unhappiness beneath an alcoholic bonhomie that has begun to wear thin; when he gets sloshed on New Year’s Eve, his behavior is embarrassing, and the disapproval of his wife and friends makes him stubborn and acerbic. It’s a knockout of a scene, and Pankow follows it up with an almost equally impressive one chronicling Vince’s morning-after depression. The ensemble work in Natural Affection is a tribute to the depth of the New York acting community.

Meredith Forlenza, Spencer David Milford and Roger Rees (photo by Joan Marcus) 

I wish I could be as enthusiastic over the Roundabout Theatre revival of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (at the American Airlines Theatre), but I found it mostly deadly. The play, set in the years just before World War I, is centered on the case of a twelve-year-old boy who’s ousted from the naval academy for allegedly stealing a postal order, denied a trial on the assumption that the actions of the Queen’s Navy can’t be challenged, and defended by a famous barrister who succeeds in getting the boy his day in court. (The boy’s innocence is established early in the play.) Rattigan focuses on the motivations of the three main figures: the boy’s father Arthur (played here by Roger Rees), who feels his son has been treated unfairly; his left-leaning daughter Kate (Charlotte Parry), for whom the correction of any injustice is a matter of unassailable principle; and the barrister, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), whose interest in the case first first baffles Kate, who dislikes his politics, and then causes her to misapprehend him. In fact, whereas the Winslows, father and daughter, come down on the issue of justice, his concern – a passionate one, as it turns out, to Kate’s astonishment – is morality.

This isn’t Rattigan’s most interesting work, but it’s typically skillful and peopled with well-drawn characters. And it should be absorbing – as it is in the Anthony Asquith film version from 1948, with Robert Donat as Sir Robert, Cedric Hardwicke as Winslow Sr. and Margaret Leighton as Kate. (So far that version hasn’t been released on DVD, but avoid at all costs David Mamet’s perplexing 1999 remake, even though Jeremy Northam is quite good as the barrister.) Lindsay Posner’s production is clumsily staged and poorly paced, and much of the acting feels pushed and artificial, especially from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the boy’s mother, Zachary Booth as his older brother, a failed Oxford scholar, Chandler Williams as Kate’s fiancé (who’s also in the navy) and Henny Russell as the housekeeper. The biggest disappointment is Nivola, a talented film actor (Junebug, Laurel Canyon) who gives a stiff, uncomfortable performance. To be fair, I saw the show in previews, and it may have perked up some before its press opening; moreover, Nivola seemed so distracted that I may simply have had the misfortune to catch him when he was somehow indisposed.

Michael Cumpsty and Spencer Davis Milford (photo by Joan Marcus) 

On the other hand, Spencer Davis Milford is completely convincing as young Ronnie Winslow, and Parry gets better as the evening wears on: she does a nice job with the scene built around the unpleasant letter she receives from her prospective father-in-law, who threatens to cut off his son’s inheritance if the Winslows continue to pursue their case against the navy. Rees’s mustache makes him look a little like a character in an Ealing comedy, but the quality of his acting is indisputable. And as the Winslows’ family lawyer, a middle-aged ex-cricketer who has loved Kate unrequitedly for years, the estimable Michael Cumpsty gives an admirable – I would say perfect – demonstration of the art of character acting.

– 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 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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