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Paulanne Simmons

Picnic Offers a Peek into the Fifties

Directed by Sam Gold
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42 Street
Opens Jan. 13, 2013
Tues. thru Sat. at 8:00 PM with Wed., Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2:00 PM
Closes Feb. 24, 2013
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan. 9, 2013

Not being present when the decision was made, I cannot state why Roundabout Theatre Company chose to revive William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Picnic” at this time. There are plays written in previous decades that have resonance today. A good example is “Golden Boy,” currently in revival at the Belasco Theatre. But “Picnic,” a play about women trapped in the boring and lifeless midwest, with no prospect of a future outside marriage, is not one of them.

The themes covered in “Picnic” and the techniques used to convey them may have been original at the time, but certainly for audiences today, the distant sound of the train symbolizing the lure of the outside world and the dream of going to New York City does not startle with its originality.

In lesser hands, a production of “Picnic” could easily become a parody, but director Sam Gold makes sure that doesn’t happen. In the first place, Andrew Lieberman’s set, the facades of two rundown houses, perfectly evoke the isolation and desolation of the characters. One house lets the audience partially see into the interior, the other lets us imagine the paucity inside. We can see quite clearly why a picnic would provide such a diversion in this corner of the world.

Gold has also adeptly mined Inge’s ability to squeeze humor out of the most pathetic situations. When the buff Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan) walks onstage, his dampened muscles glistening, the aging women watching him from their porches swoon most inappropriately. And Stan plays Adonis with aggressive goodwill. Although the comic relief sometimes descends into buffoonery, it is always welcome.

There are a lot of stars here, although not all of them have earned their stripes on Broadway. Ellen Burstyn does not have much of an opportunity to make a big impression as Helen Potts, an aging woman living with her ailing and demanding mother. She seems to function mostly as the catalyst who disrupts the neighborhood by hiring Hal, the good-looking vagabond, to do chores around the house.

The show’s standout performer is Elizabeth Marvel who, as Rosemary Sydney, the schoolteacher who does not want to die an old maid, can both ring our hearts and set us off into peals of laughter. We cannot help but cheer her on as she manipulates her hapless boyfriend, Howard (Reed Birney) into marrying her.

It is unfortunate, however that the subplot seems to dominate the play while the major storyline, Madge Owens’s attraction to Hal, seems to fall flat. Maggie Grace is sweet and innocent as Madge, but she does not convince us that a pretty and popular girl would really envy the intellect of her younger sister Millie (the excellent Madeleine Martin).

Even more fatal to the show, despite his beautiful body, Stan does not have the fire and sexual intensity that would make us understand why Madge abandons the rich, attractive and congenial Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport) for Hal. His obvious awareness of his own physical beauty makes him seem more foolish than dangerous. One cannot help wishing Madge would stop being silly and listen to Flo (the very effective Mare Winningham), her wise and loving mother.

Although “Picnic” has its moments, this production makes it hard to understand in 2013 why the play won the Pulitzer Prize in1953. As the play itself points out, time is cruel.

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