October 15, 2011

"Man and Boy" Isn't Ballsy Enough

There are at least three obvious reasons that may have prompted the Roundabout Theatre Company to revive Man and Boy, the 1963 drama by the British playwright Terence Rattigan, which opened at the American Airlines Theatre last Sunday.

The first is that this year marks the centenary of Rattigan’s birth and although he’s never been as big a name here in the U.S. as he is in England, theater lovers everywhere are suckers for nostalgia.

The second is that the play is about a disgraced financier and his son who tries to evade the heavy shadow his father has cast, which, even though the play is set during the 1930s and based on a scam artist of that period, parallels the story of the recent big-time swindler Bernie Madoff and his son Mark who committed suicide after his father’s downfall.

And the third is that the arrogant financier is just the kind of larger-than-life character that the larger-than-life actor Frank Langella is so great at sinking his teeth into.

At least those are the reasons that made both my husband K and I—big fans of Rattigan’s, bigger fans of Langella’s and always up for shows that make the connection between art and life—want to see Man and Boy.  But only one of us ended up having a satisfying evening.  And it wasn’t me.

Rattigan specialized in well-crafted melodramas such as The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables and The Winslow Boy, in which upper-class Brits make the best of uncomfortable circumstances in stiff-upper-lip fashion. Movie versions of those plays pop up occasionally on AMC and are well worth putting on your Tivo wish list.

But Rattigan’s style of theater was muscled to the side in the ‘50s by the arrival of the "angry young man" plays lead by John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, which the Roundabout is scheduled to revive in January at its smaller Laura Pels Theatre.

Rattigan continued writing until his death from cancer in 1997 but the later plays aren’t as memorable or as affecting.  Man and Boy flopped both in London and on Broadway, where it played just 54 performances in 1963.  

I wish the Roundabout had celebrated Rattigan with one of his better plays, like The Deep Blue Sea, which was given two major and critically-acclaimed revivals in England earlier this year.

One thing that makes Man and Boy standout, however, is that it’s one of the few times that Rattigan, who was gay when it was illegal to be open about it, includes an overt reference to homosexuality in a play. 

The scene in which he does it is the best in this production. Even though Maria Aitken, who has directed the show in somewhat prosaic fashion, emphasizes the comic at the expense of its sinister undertones. 

Still, Langella has a great time with the scene and with the rest of the play too (click here to listen to him talk about the role in a terrific NPR interview). But his performance never touched me. 

Nor did that of Adam Driver, a young actor whose earnest intensity seems to appeal to directors who have had him working steadily since he graduated from Juilliard two years ago (he’s been cast in Look Back in Anger too; click here to read more about him).  But, as is the case with his portrayal of the son here, Driver's performances often seem both undercooked and overwrought to me. 

And, as for the Madoff connection, neither the play nor this production of it offer any fresh insight into what makes financial egoists like the play's Gregor Antonescu or the real-life Bernie Madoff behave the way they do. 

Yet you might get a different picture if K were writing this post because he's the one who had a good time.  “All I ask is some good acting,” he said as we rehashed the show over dinner at Orso, hands-down the best place to eat in the theater district. Well, there’s no question that Langella is supplying that, I just wish he were doing it in a better play and in a more powerful production.

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