January 23, 2013

This "Picnic" Is a Smorgasbord of Acting Styles

Directors often say that casting is the most important decision they make since putting the right or wrong person in a role can make or break a show.  By that measure, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of William Inge’s Picnic, which opened at the American Airlines Theatre last week, is only a partial success.

There are a dozen characters in Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a Labor Day weekend in a small Kansas town in the early 1950s and eight of them are significant- sized roles.  Director Sam Gold has assembled a motley crew of actors—the now almost requisite Hollywood newcomers, some old stage vets and the sui generis Elizabeth Marvel, who almost always marches to her own beat—to fill them.

A couple of those choices work beautifully.  But a few turn out to be so eccentric that they throw the production off-kilter.  

The pivotal role—and the one that’s drawn a lot of attention in this production—is Hal, a hunk who drifts into town and upsets the humdrum lives of everyone he brushes up against. Gold has cast Sebastian Stan, best known as Bucky Barnes in the “Captain America” movie series and the possessor of possibly the most chiseled abs in America.

When Stan’s Hal, sweaty from doing some handy work for one of the town’s spinsters, took his shirt off in an early scene of the performance my husband K and I attended, you could hear gasps (yes, mine included) echo through the theater.

But Stan, who admits that he worked out to bulk up, doesn’t seem totally comfortable in his body (click here to read an interview with him) or in the role of Hal, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who went to college on a football scholarship, dropped out when the frat boys refused to accept him and is now trying to figure out where he fits in.

Of course, he’s not the only one struggling with that.  So is Madge, the prettiest girl in town who is longing for someone to value her for something other than her looks.  Like Stan, the eye-catching film and TV actress Maggie Grace more than fulfills the physical attributes of the part and, like Stan, she turns in a solid performance.  

The problem is that’s not enough. These roles demand actors who can crack them open and reveal the inner turmoil that the characters don’t know how to express.  Alas, neither of these performances managed to do that the night we saw them.

Marvel is a master at tearing apart a character and then putting it back together in a refreshingly original way and she was one of the key reasons that K and I wanted to see this production.  Marvel has won kudos for her spirited performance as the old-maid schoolteacher Rosemary who boards with Madge’s mother. But K and I thought she played Rosemary’s bonhomie too broadly and her desperation too melodramatically.

The always-dependable Reed Birney tries to hold up his end with some quietly nuanced moments as Rosemary’s longtime boyfriend and reluctant fiance Howard but is overshadowed by Marvel’s showy performance. Which is a real shame because this production marks Birney’s first time on Broadway in 30 years after decades of terrific work off-Broadway.  (Click here to read an interview with him.) 

But, as I said, a couple of Gold’s choices did score. Ellyn Burstyn, although at 80 perhaps too old for the role, is winningly sympathetic as Mrs. Potts, the next-door neighbor whose life story includes a young marriage that was forcibly annulled and then long, lonely years of playing nursemaid to a crotchety mother that serve as a cautionary tale for the younger women in town.  

But the true standout is Mare Winningham, who, and I don’t know what Broadway producers have been thinking, is also just making her Broadway debut in the role of Madge’s mother Flo.  Widowed by a husband who drank and ran around when he was alive and then died early, leaving her with two girls and no money to care for them, Flo has pinned all her hopes on a marriage between Madge and Alan, the richest boy in town.

Winningham’s anguish when Flo senses that Hal may threaten that union is so visceral that all the pain that Inge embedded in Picnic seems to come pouring out of her.  In those moments, she makes the show.

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