Sunday, December 16, 2012

'Picnic': Sparks But No Fireworks in Tame Revival

Where is James Dean when you need him?

That’s what I was thinking as I watched the workmanlike if uninspired production of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Picnic, now in previews at the American Airlines Theater. 

Inge’s domestic drama centers on a circle of family and neighbors in a small town in Kansas, where predictable lives are shaken up by the intrusion of an outsider, Hal. Hal is a combo pack of earthy masculinity, wild unpredictability, and  vulnerability that raises the temperature for the repressed women, already sweltering in the late summer’s heat. 

Before Hal (Sebastian Stan) shows up looking for work as a handyman, plans are underway for the annual Labor Day picnic, a final fling before the start of the new school year. 

We meet Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) and her daughters, the younger Millie (Madeleine Martin),“the smart one,” and her older sister Madge (Maggie Grace), 18, “the pretty one” whom Flo hopes to marry off to Alan (Ben Rappaport), a pleasant enough well-to-do college student with a bright future ahead of him. Madge and Alan do seem to be a well suited, albeit “safe” match, until Hal comes along.

As a dramatic character, Hal is the kind of young man who would have been portrayed in the movies by James Dean or Marlon Brando (though, as it happens, it was William Holden—arguably too old for the part—who famously took on the role in the 1955 film version of the play).

Hal has been hired to do chores for the Owens’ neighbor Mrs. Potts (Ellen Burstyn). He reminds her of her own rebellious days, and his frequently-on-view shirtless hubba-hubba torso clinches the deal.

As evening descends, it isn’t long before pretty girl Madge and pretty boy Hal get together, and sparks begin to fly.  Let’s just say, in appropriately 1950s euphemistic terms, they never do make it to the picnic.   

The story of Hal and Madge has its counterpart with that of an older couple, Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel), a spinster school teacher who boards with the Owens family, and her beau Howard (Reed Birney), whom she is determined to marry before she has to face one more day in the classroom. 

The production, efficiently directed by Sam Gold, boasts solid performances by most of the cast.  Ms. Marvel and Ms. Burstyn are particularly compelling, despite the fact that their characters are built on clich├ęs.

Unfortunately, in the central role of Hal, Sebastian Stan—best known for television and movie work (e. g. Captain America)simply does not have the acting chops to pull this off. While his abs are certainly ogle-worthy, Stan provides precious little of Hal’s wild streak, and the heat between him and Ms. Grace wouldn't boil a pot of tea.  

Theatergoers have an interesting opportunity to compare Inge’s work with that of Clifford Odets, whose Golden Boy is currently receiving a solid production a few blocks away at the Belasco. Where Odets contextualizes his play in broader social themes, Inge narrows his focus to life’s everyday dramas. 

In the right hands, domestic dramas can be quite potent. Think of Inge’s contemporary, Arthur Miller, or imagine what Tennessee Williams might have done with a character like Hal.  But in Picnic—at least as evidenced in this production—there is precious little at stake and not nearly enough combustion to trigger a drama-worthy flameout.  In the end, when Madge decides to chase after the departed Hal, the strongest sentiment she can muster is “he needs me,” and the best we can say to Madge is, “good luck."

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