Saturday, September 10, 2011

Frank Langella Gives A Mesmerizing Performance in 'Man And Boy'

It’s not hard to see what drew the folks at Roundabout to mount a production of Terrence Rattigan’s 1963 drama Man and Boy, now in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. 

For one thing, they had a story that could have popped out of today’s headlines.  Think of Bernie Madoff or the gang of thieves at Enron, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of the central character, Gregor Antonescu, a flim-flam artist extraordinaire who has lied, cheated, and stolen millions of dollars by out-Ponzi-ing Ponzi throughout Europe and the United States at the height of the Great Depression.

The second thing going for Man and Boy, which takes place in a Greenwich Village apartment on a single evening in 1934, is that Gregor Antonescu is played by Frank Langella, at the height of his powers as a stage actor and for whom this is another Tony-worthy performance.

Despite the fact that his character has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, you cannot take your eyes off Langella.  Almost against your will, you even root for him as he uses his undeniable gifts of charm, gab, and rock-steady nerve to manipulate people in order to keep his empire from crumbling under its own weight.   Antonescu is the Devil incarnate, and Langella instills every moment with his own devilish gusto. 

Before you run to pick up a ticket, let me advise you that outside of the central character, the play is a bit of a mess, and it is also not hard to see why it lasted for all of 54 performances on Broadway in its initial run and has not been revised until now. 

One of the biggest problems with the production lies with the second key character, Antonescu’s estranged son Basil, in whose apartment the play takes place. Rattigan has given us, at least on paper, a complicated relationship between a totally selfish and self-absorbed father and his damaged, needy son, who left home five years earlier with the intention of never seeing his father again. 

There are lots of ways to play this relationship, but what we are given, at least as performed by Adam Driver, is a son who is almost devoid of personality—as if the father had drained all  the life out of him years ago.  Driver, who has shown himself to be a terrific young actor on the New York theater scene over the past several years, either does not know what to do with the role, or he has been miserably directed by Maria Aitken to mope around and accept the abuse his father still heaps upon him. 

There are other characters, not all of whom serve much of a purpose, including Basil’s girlfriend and Gregor’s wife, played respectively by Virginia Kull and Francesca Faridany.  The women do a good job with their roles, such as they are, but both characters could be excised from the script without harming it one iota. 

The others--Gregor’s right-hand man (Michael Siberry), an American businessman whom Gregor nastily manipulates (Zach Grenier), and an accountant who has uncovered a $6 million fraud (Brian Hutchison)--are needed to move the plot forward, and the actors do well by their roles.

The set design by Derek McLane makes good use of the cavernous space of the stage, though the separateness between the living area and the bedroom is not clearly delineated.  Perhaps some changes in the lighting design (Kevin Adams) could help.  It might also help alleviate the confusion that occurs when Mr. Siberry first appears on the scene to a smattering of entrance applause by those who believe it is Mr. Langella.

To be fair, this is early in the preview period.  Maybe it will improve.  But for now, if you can ignore what needs to be ignored,  and you can appreciate a top-notch, often mesmerizing performance by Mr. Langella, by all means head on out to the American Airlines Theatre and this production of Man and Boy

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