Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Tidy and Insightful The Subject Was Roses Gracefully Revived

Also see Bob's review of A Thousand Clowns

Stephanie Zimbalist, Lee Sellars and Chris Wendelken
The time is May 1946, and we find ourselves attending upon the West Bronx middle-class apartment of the Cleary family. Son Timmy Cleary has just returned home after a war time stint overseas. Strewn about the living room and kitchen are signs of last night's "welcome home" party. After three maturing years in the Army, Timmy is a resourceful 21-year-old determined to share an apartment with a friend and make his way in the world. However, the next steps in his life are not going to be easy. For, returning to his parental apartment, Timmy finds himself falling back into the pattern of dysfunctional, interdependent family relationships which had dominated his pre-military existence.

Whereas most plays and films in the past forty-five years about soldiers returning home from war have been anti-war screeds dealing with horrifically scarred and traumatized, often drug addicted, young men, Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Subject Was Roses, is a very personal drama embodying the complexity and randomness of the flow of events and relationships which inform all of our lives, and often lead to destructive behaviors and disappointing life situations.

Tim's parents, John and Nettie, are together for life out of habit and convenience. Any residual love they may sometimes feel for one another is usually buried beneath a lifetime of hurt, disappointment and resentment. John is an alcoholic who has been faithless to his marital vows. Nettie, who is given to airs, will no longer have relations with him. The pair compete for Timmy's time and favor. Returning from attending a baseball game, Timmy has bought a bouquet of roses which he urges his father to tell Nettie that he (John) has bought for her. John will do so, but his inability to sustain a good natured pose will result in Tim's well intentioned gesture only deepening their gulf.

Gilroy most ably encompasses his wide ranging and complex exegesis of the human condition with insight, compassion and precision. Gilroy's Clearys are believable, compelling and complex characters, their conflicts are meaningful and compelling, and the situation at hand is brought to a resonate and believable resolution within a running time of about an hour and fifty minutes.

Michael Mastro has directed a smooth, naturalistic ensemble performance without dampening the intensity of the emotional confrontations. Lee Sellars captures the complexity and intensity of the father, John. It is a particularly difficult role. John's extremes of behavior testify to his inability to blend all of his emotions and impulses into a coherent, reasonably consistent personality. He can quickly move from celebratory joy at Timmy's safe return home to rampant and hurtful cruelty toward Timmy because he hasn't awoken earlier. Author Gilroy and Sellars are able to make us accept, understand and, at moments, pity John despite the pain that he arbitrarily inflicts on Timmy and Mattie ("the fucking I'm getting ain't worth the fucking I'm getting").

Stephanie Zimbalist captures the coquettish charm that Nettie uses to disarm even as she turns ever more bitter toward her life and husband. There is an appropriate suggestion of the Oedipal in her performance. Chris Wendelken is a Timmy who knows that he does not want to, cannot stay with his parents, but, whether as a result of guilt or pity, is in peril of losing his future. Wendelken projects an unadorned sweetness which, even from the perspective of 2011, prevents us from being angry with him for his weakness.

The compassionate Gilroy stakes out the position that "no one is to blame." Even so, I found John's behavior to be more egregious than that of Nettie. Timmy, the apparent surrogate for the author, clearly favors his father over his mother. Since this play is so personal to Frank D. Gilroy, I could not help but wonder whether Gilroy meant to convey this dichotomy, whether it is an unintended element in his writing, whether it results from this production, or whether it is merely in the eye of this beholder. In any event, The Subject Was Roses may be a small in size, naturalistic, "kitchen sink" play on the surface, but ooh, what's underneath. It is there for all to see in this little gem of a production.

The Subject Was Roses continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm (except 2/17 and 3/8)/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 2 pm (except 2/24) through March 6, 2011, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online:

The Subject Was Roses by Frank D. Gilroy; directed by Michael Mastro

John Cleary.......................Lee Sellars
Timmy Cleary...........Chris Wendelken
Nettie Cleary........Stephanie Zimbalist

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

- Bob Rendell

Privacy Policy