Broadway Theater Review: PICNIC (American Airlines Theater)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on January 19, 2013

in Theater-New York

AS HARMLESS AS A PICNIC

Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Picnic is the perfect show to take your mom to. I know because I did. An excellent cast – which includes Ellen Burstyn, Mare Winningham, and Reed Birney – solid staging, topnotch stagecraft elements, and a well-crafted, thoughtful script full of humor, insights and observations, sympathetic characters, and a story that brings out a number of truths about the human condition without getting too ugly, all make for a pleasant excursion, the perfect artistic/intellectual accompaniment to, say, a nice steak dinner.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of Roundabout’s PICNIC on BroadwayI’m just not sure how relevant Mr. Inge’s story is for modern America. His world of 1953 Kansas was a different time, without so many options, which is at once comforting and limiting. Part of the play’s drama is anchored in these limitations (it was harder to pick up and move in the 1950’s, for example, harder for a woman to find a good job or get an education, or have sex without “ruining” herself). Today, for all intents and purposes, these limitations no longer exist in America. Inge’s comparatively normal world revealed hidden truths about longing, desire, and small town America, but they no longer pack a punch for audiences inured by talk shows and magazines. As a rustic slice of Americana, there is nothing wrong with this show – the word good comes to mind – but today’s audiences may have heard Inge’s truths too many times now to make this outing significant.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of Roundabout’s PICNIC on BroadwayPicnic begins as a small Kansas town prepares for the Labor Day picnic, with all the action taking place in a backyard shared by Mrs. Helen Potts (Ms. Burstyn) and Flo Owens (Ms. Winningham). Flo is a widow with two teenage daughters: Millie (a delightfully impish Madeleine Martin), a smart but homely fifteen-year-old with ambitions of becoming a controversial New York writer, and eighteen-year-old Madge (a sympathetic Maggie Grace), a statuesque beauty who playfully daydreams of being “discovered” in the dime store where she works. Madge is going out with Alan Seymour (a smart, understated performance by Ben Rappaport), a college graduate from a wealthy family who adores her. Indeed, her mother encourages Madge to get with him while the getting is good.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of Roundabout’s PICNIC on BroadwayBut Madge is reluctant. She likes Alan but she isn’t attracted to him. Her feelings for Alan’s former college fraternity brother Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan in an energetic and well-tuned performance) are another matter. A strapping Adonis from the wrong side of the tracks, Hal is a wildcard with some questionable habits (lying, drinking, womanizing), who attended college on a football scholarship but who is now jobless and penniless, doing chores for Mrs. Potts in exchange for breakfast and a place to sleep. We sense right off that his presence spells trouble and we are not disappointed.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of Roundabout’s PICNIC on BroadwayThe subplot consists of a possible autumn romance between a local merchant and bachelor Howard Bevans (Mr. Birney, filling out his character with some lovely undertones) and a spinster school teacher Rosemary Sydney (an appropriately frightened and desperate Elizabeth Marvel). Their story seems to be a sort of alternate version of a future in which as young people they didn’t take a chance on love. Rounding out the cast are Chris Perfetti as Bomber, Cassie Beck and Maddie Corman as Rosemary’s old-maids-in-waiting Christine and Irma, respectively, and Lizbeth Mackay as the voice of Mrs. Pott’s mother.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of Roundabout’s PICNIC on BroadwayThe world created on stage is cozy and real – you can almost smell it – without being sentimental. Andrew Lieberman’s beautiful set, consisting of two “houses” and a backyard, is full of textures and details which, in combination with Jane Cox’s wonderfully nuanced and flawless lighting, David Zinn’s period costumes, and Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design, perfectly evoke a late-summer day in a small rural town of the 1950’s. I found myself wanting to be in this place, smoking a cigarette on the porch, drinking lemonade and listening to crickets chirp while trains go by.

It’s this seductive world that emanates from Director Sam Gold’s vision. In fact, with Mr. Stan buffed like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, the director seems to center on seduction as his vision. But while the world Mr. Gold creates is seductive in its quaintness, it’s a world we’ve been to and know well. Not much in this very professional production feels like it needs to be said. What this show lacks is teeth and what the play needs is a reinterpretation that would make it exciting and relevant today. As it stands, Picnic is just a quality revival you see with your mom.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of Roundabout’s PICNIC on Broadway

photos by Joan Marcus

Picnic
Roundabout Theater Company at American Airlines Theater
scheduled to end on February 24, 2013
for tickets, call (212) 719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/

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