Are all single women to be pitied? Would an undisciplined drifter in the 1950’s have a torso with a sculpted six-pack? Did William Inge’s “Picnic” really deserve the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over all other plays and musicals that debuted in 1953, including Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”?
These are fair questions to ask while sitting through the third Broadway production of Inge’s play, now opening at the American Airlines Theater. There is no disguising how dated and relatively slight the playwright’s script, nor anachronistic some of director Sam Gold’s choices. But there is also no denying the power of a good cast – and this is a good cast, full of reliably stellar veterans and exciting newcomers — to fashion out of “Picnic” an enjoyable outing.
Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan) arrives in a small Kansas town on Labor Day, the day of the town’s big annual picnic, his presence provoking a response from females of several generations, and in the course of the day changing some of their lives. The elderly Mrs. Potts (Ellen Burstyn) gives him breakfast and offers to wash his shirt; in exchange he does chores. That is how he meets her next-door neighbors, the Owens – Millie, a teenage tomboy and bookworm (Madeleine Martin), her beautiful older sister Madge (Maggie Grace), their widowed mother Flo (Mare Winningham) – and their boarder, a self-declared “old-maid schoolteacher” (Elizabeth Marvel).
Hal, as it turns out, has not chosen this town randomly. He is here to see Alan (Ben Rappaport), his one friend from college, where Hal was a college football star who couldn’t hack it academically or socially, though he always had success with the “babes.” Alan’s father is a businessman and Hal is here to ask for a job: “Something in a nice office where I can wear a tie, and have a sweet little secretary, and talk over the telephone about enterprises and things.” This is a young man, we see quickly, with big, vague ambitions and little likelihood of achieving any of them.
Alan is dating Madge, a match that Madge’s mother is quite keen on, telling her “a pretty girl doesn’t have long, just a few years, when she’s the equal of kings, and can walk out of a shanty like this…”
“I’m only 18,” Madge says.
“And next summer you’ll be 19, and then 20, and then 21, and then 40.”
It is perhaps inevitable that Hal and Madge will be drawn to one another, the consequences of which provide the drama of “Picnic.”
The light moments work best in “Picnic” and there are some scenes that are both funny and affecting, such as those between the sisters and between them and their mother.
The sad, serious matters the play touches on – the stultifying life in a small town; loneliness and the difficulties of love and commitment; class consciousness, the repressed sexual and emotional yearnings of women – have all been done better elsewhere, without the queasiness that comes from the suspicion that the playwright’s values are not aligned with our own.
None of the women are married; all are unhappy. The depiction of two schoolteacher colleagues of Rosemary, explicitly well-educated (one is getting her Masters from Columbia), is a boring sexist stereotype, gawky poor dressers who couldn’t get a man if they tried.
Rosemary is even worse. Though she makes a pretense of savoring her independence, she is so desperate for a man that she gets drunk, aggressively flirts with the far younger Hal, then attacks him both physically (ripping his shirt) and verbally. Later, she gets down on her knees to beg her male friend Howard (Reed Birney) to marry her.
Why is it that “A Streetcar Named Desire” elicits no similar embarrassment in audiences today; why does nobody see Blanche, a fallen schoolteacher, as a sexist stereotype? Is the simple answer that Tennessee Williams was more talented than Inge, his characters more fully realized and thus transcending the era in which they were written?
If “Picnic” has produced no transcendent or iconic characters, most of the 12-member cast of the Roundabout production keep us engaged.
Sebastian Stan as Hal looks like a younger Harry Connick Jr., is credibly blue-collar and suitably sultry; he not only has a well-sculpted body but the distinct advantage of playing a role that in the 1955 film was portrayed by William Holden in what was surely one of the worst performances of his career. It was made worse by Holden’s slightly creepy pairing with the far younger Kim Novak. The chemistry on stage between Stan and Grace is more believable (though maybe a tad less steamy than it is supposed to be), and Grace does what she can in the bland role of a well-meaning pretty girl who would rather be seen as something more than just pretty.
The real coup of this production is casting old pros who are far better than the material, and improve it by their presence – the great Reed Birney (who won me over completely in the recent Off-Broadway plays Circle Mirror Transformation and A Small Fire”) in the role of the reluctant boyfriend; Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Potts, an older woman who tries to satisfy her sexual desires by inviting in young men for breakfast and baking pies; Elizabeth Marvel who is so completely transformed into spinsterish Rosemary that few would recognize her as the original rebellious daughter Brooke in “Other Desert Cities.” Is it possible that Mare Winningham, who plays the girls’ mother, is making her Broadway debut? She has traveled a long way from her Brat Pack days, not only becoming a familiar presence on quality television (“Mildred Pierce” and “Hatfields & McCoys”) but establishing a reputation as a first-rate stage actress in the universally praised Off-Broadway plays “Tribes” and “After the Revolution.”
Wouldn’t it be great to see all these actors in some kind of repertory company? Wouldn’t it be even greater if the company’s next Broadway outing was less creaky and quaint?
American Airlines Theater
By William Inge
Directed by Sam Gold
Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman, costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by Jane Cox, sound design by Jill BC Du Boff, choreography by Chase Brock.
Cast: Reed Birney, Maggie Grace, Elizabeth Marvel,Sebastian Stan, Mare Winningham, Ellen Burstyn, Madeleine Martin, Ben Rappaport, Cassie Beck, Maddie Corman, Lizbeth Mackay, Chris Perfetti, Peter Bradbury, Dani De Waal, Matthew Goodrich
Ticket prices: $42 – $127
Running time: Two hours and five minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
“Picnic” is scheduled to close February 24.