Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 9, 2011
Man and Boy by Terence Rattigan. Directed by Maria Aitken. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Original music & sound design by John Gromada. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Frank Langella, with Adam Driver, Francesca Faridany, Zach Grenier, Brian Hutchison, Virginia Kull, Michael Siberry.
It's a good thing it does, too: The play's reported original subjects, Swedish industrialist Ivar Kreuger and American entrepreneur Samuel Insull, have more or less been forgotten as two casualties among millions who fell to the ruthlessness of the Great Depression. But Rattigan's version, Gregor Antonescu, is alive and well yet today, in the spirit of credit default swappers and scheming mortgage brokers everywhere, to say nothing of the dyed-in-the-blood con artists like Bernard Madoff who made an astonishing living taking the maxim "by any means necessary" to its furthest imaginable extremes. Gregor, facing the ruin of his own sprawling business empire, likewise has no one to blame but himself — and nowhere to go but down.
Man and Boy, then, thrives entirely on how big a charge you can get out of Gregor's (figurative and literal) death spiral. Rattigan makes it easy to some degree. Over the course of one of the most fateful evenings of his life, Gregor will display in detailed microcosm exactly how he got where he is and how he'll get where he's ultimately going. He's unafraid to sell out either his wife, his son, or even his most trusted right-hand man in the pursuit of the smallest chance at redemption, and isn't quick to recant his actions when things don't go quite according to plan (which, at this point for Gregor, is most of the time). There's a genuine tragic patina to all this, even if you spend a solid two and a quarter hours watching the fall and don't see much of the pride that goes before it, and that's always compelling.
Pair it with an actor Langella's caliber, and you get something much closer to transcendence. A well-known saying about the craft of great actors is that you never hear or see the gears in their head turning; you only see them existing, and making decisions, in real time. But with Langella you see all of Gregor's gears grinding, and how exciting that is. Langella makes sure you understand that Gregor is not a businessman, but rather an artist, most likely a sculptor or an orchestra conductor, who fashions from lowly pieces jaw-dropping masterworks of deception and cunning. This tells you an extraordinary amount about how he pursues both his professional and personal affairs.
Much of the first act is concerned with Gregor's brokering a deal with a titanic rival, Mark Herries (Zach Grenier), using every weapon within arm's reach. He'll memorize bizarre bookkeeping facts to have a minute advantage, for example. Or he'll walk all over the accountant (Brian Hutchison) who discovered and publicized the monetary mismatches that got Gregor into trouble in the first place. Worst yet, he'll appropriate his son, Basil (Adam Driver), as a bargaining chip to offer the promise of sating Mark's particular appetites. Yet Langella does each of these things without malice or even outward recognition: To him, they're as natural as asking his secretary to take a letter. Try as you might — and you'll really want to try — you won't be able to completely hate Gregor. This is not to say you'll necessarily sympathize with him, but you'll be exposed fully enough to his point of view that you won't automatically buy the arguments against him, either.
Credit for that goes to Langella's cast mates, all of whom provide top-notch support. Driver makes Basil a youthful and driven foil against his father's ideals (or lack thereof), but without investing him with a cloying neediness: This Basil long ago learned the terms on which he and his father would operate, and he's so internalized them that he's now nothing more than just another employee. It's a dynamic choice that works splendidly and pays additional dividends as the tension between Basil and Gregor mounts. Gregor's wife is one of the foremost victims here, but Francesca Faridany presents her as being subconsciously in on the con, so that even she ends up getting what she deserves. Grenier's playful Mark, Hutchison's neurotic David, Michael Siberry's ice-cold-stolid Sven Johnson (Gregor's aide de camp), and Virginia Kull's realistic Carol Penn (Basil's girlfriend) expertly fill out the palette.
Derek McLane's Greenwich Village hole-in-the-wall set, Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, and Kevin Adams's imposing lights ardently set the flailing-1930s tone, which Aitken maintains at a desperate pitch throughout. The creative team, like the performers, are committed to making every minute feel real. Their efforts are worthy, but mere gravy. The thematic undercurrents of socialism versus capitalism as applied in a time of crisis, the pervasive agony that's trying to bust down the doors of Basil's apartment, and the charismatic greasiness of Gregor speak for themselves and our time with no extra assistance required. Rattigan did not provide many answers to the dilemmas he documented, but the thrilling way he asked questions that have endured throughout history — and likely will continue to do so — are enough to make Man and Boy a mature and chilling evening that sets a lofty standard for the rest of the season to come.