Performance diary: PICNIC

December 31, 2012

December 30 — I’ve never seen William Inge’s Picnic in any form. I’m not sure I’ve seen any play by Inge, once ranked alongside Tennesee Williams among America’s best-known playwrights, now associated with a certain kind of period drama about the emotional yearning of regular folks (and remembered as a sad closety gay alcoholic who committed suicide in 1973). I always picture an Inge play as being about a young stud who breezes into a patch of love-starved women, makes an impression, breaks a few hearts, and moves on – which is pretty much exactly what happens in Picnic. The original 1953 Broadway production starred Janice Rule as the prettiest girl in town, Madge; Paul Newman (in his Broadway debut) as Alan Seymour, the nice rich guy she’s supposed to marry; Ralph Meeker as Hal Carter, the sexy drifter who riles everybody up; Kim Stanley as Maggie’s plain younger sister, Millie; and Eileen Heckart as Rosemary, the wise-cracking schoolteacher with a desperate desire to be rescued. The play won the Pulitzer Prime for drama that year. Director Joshua Logan also made the 1955 film, which starred Kim Novak, Cliff Roberston, William Holden, Susan Strasberg, and Rosalind Russell. The Roundabout Theater’s revival, directed by the busy/ubiquitous Sam Gold, is perfectly built for people like me, who are curious about the play but have never seen it.

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I was drawn in by the intriguing cast: Elizabeth Marvel as Rosemary, Reed Birney as the guy who’s been dragging his heels about marrying her, Mare Winningham as Madge’s mother, and Ellen Burstyn as the spinster who lives next door with her mean old (never-seen) mother and who is the one who hires Hal (played by Sebastian Stan, best-known for the Captain America movies) to do yard work and therefore parade shirtless in front of all these gals. Madeline Martin, the precocious youngster in August: Osage County on Broadway, plays Millie. All of them are enjoyable enough, but each plays his or her character as a caricature. By contrast, two actors new to me – Maggie Grace as Madge and Ben Rapaport as Alan – inhabit their roles with sincerity and understatement. Grace in her quiet way conveys the loneliness and oppression of being kept in the box of “prettiest girl in town,” and even though Alan could be the squarest, most thankless role in the play, Rapaport makes him genuinely kind and present in unpredictable ways. The two styles sort of clash, and I preferred the style of Grace and Rapaport. I think the show would have been stronger, more emotionally affecting if the others followed their lead. The show is still in previews. Who knows, it could look a lot different when it opens in mid-January. I will say that Chris Perfetti (below, with Maggie Grace), in the tiny role of the paperboy, is a sexy little fucker. And my favorite thing about the show is the line just before intermission, when Hal grabs Madge the way Stanley Kowalski grabs Blanche, and he says: “We ain’t goin’ to no goddamn picnic!”

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