I admit it: I was less than enthusiastic about seeing "Picnic". Ho hum. Another feeble attempt to breathe life into a creaky theatrical warhorse from a production organization fresh out of new ideas.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Everything about this revival is so on-target that playwright William Inge’s examination of sexual tensions seething under the surface of Calvinist Protestants in a Prohibition Era Kansas town is the most thrilling Broadway revival I’ve seen since "Mary Stuart" three years ago.
Just as that revival showed that even a classic known only to literature scholars can become exciting and vivid with the right cast and director, so does "Picnic" take a work best known for its film version and make it fresh, original, exciting and even profound.
Knowing that he had written the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Splendor in the Grass," another devastating look at raging youthful hormones in a small Plains town, as well as "Come Back Little Sheba," about a middle-aged man lost in lust (which was given a flabbier revival on Broadway four years ago), I had some inkling of Inge’s ability to limn sexual tension.
Nothing, however, prepared me for the power of "Picnic." Its deeply felt characterizations, particularly of sexually frustrated middle-aged women, ranks with and even surpasses the best of Tennessee Williams.
"Picnic" takes place entirely on one set, the front porches of two neighboring houses full of women, bereft of men. Flo Owens, embittered by her marriage to a philandering drunkard, has pinned her hopes on daughters: Madge’s beauty to snag a local rich preppy; and the younger daughter Millie’s sharp intelligence and talent perhaps for greater things.
Her spinster-schoolteacher boarder, Rosemary Sydney, represses her sexual longing under the guise of prudery. Her next door neighbor Helen Potts knew only one moment of happiness before her mother (ailing and unseen) broke them up. Now poor Helen can only get her jollies out of giving odd jobs to young men passing through town.
Bringing this simmering female cauldron to a quick boil is the arrival of Hal, a drifter who can’t seem to keep his shirt on. Lucky for the audience, because Hal is played by Sebastian Stan, who’s got a bitchin’ torso. It doesn’t take long for Hal to upset the equilibrium, especially Madge’s loveless relationship with preppy Alan.
It’s a sign of what a fantastic cast this is that one of our greatest actresses, Ellen Burstyn, has a tertiary role as the sad-sack, rapidly aging Helen Potts. If the other cast members don’t rise to her level of greatness, most of them come damn close.
Elizabeth Marvel nearly steals the show as Rosemary Sydney, along with Broadway veteran Reed Birney as her long-time (too long for Rosemary) suitor. Her tall, angular body veering every which way and a voice that could cut glass, Marvel combines Lucille Ball’s slapstick with Eve Arden’s edge.
Birney nicely underplays a regular guy who reminded me of my own cousin, also the owner of a small-town store, who, in middle age, realized he was too old to share his life with a spouse.
Maggie Grace’s beauty fits Madge, but she also brings out the character’s inchoate anger at being underestimated for her beauty. Like Katherine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," she doesn’t want to be a goddess, she wants to be a woman. And man, does she get to realize that, in a steamy dance seduction with Hal that could provide enough heat to light the whole Great White Way.
The production does have a few minor flaws. There’s no way a Kansas pick-up band would have been boogying to the rockabilly song that gets everyone stepping out (with the help of some moonshine gin), although, to be fair, that’s the only glaring anachronism. (Nice to see people smoking nonfiltered cigarettes!)
There’s one miscast actor, Ben Rappaport, who comes across as too old to be a college student (not helped by his playing it stoop shouldered). His look is also out of place in the Kansas context. I could have wished that director Sam Gold would have brought to the fore the obvious homoerotic fixation Alan has for Hal. It’s definitely right there in the text.
These are minor flaws, however -- like the small rend in a swatch of Madras cloth that gives off brilliant colors, just as Inge’s dialogue crackles with small-town bonhomie and humor.
It’s interesting to compare "Picnic" with the other major revival of a period drama currently on Broadway. Whereas everyone in Clifford Odets’ "Golden Boy" stands for something, the dialogue a pastiche of agitprop Marxist cliches, the plot preposterous, everything in "Picnic" has the ring of truth.
Where Odets does way too much telling, Inge shows. All of his characters come from real life. He ennobles them, not with fancy speeches, but by giving them situations where they either stand up to society’s rules or fall prey to them. I’d even say that his dialogue and sympathy for older women surpasses Williams.
Mega kudos to the Roundabout for giving new life to a classic. This "Picnic" is the kind of production that restores my faith in Broadway as the pinnacle of American theater.
"Picnic" is in a limited run through Feb. 24 at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St., just west of Times Square. For info or tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit roundabouttheatre.org.