Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 13, 2013
Picnic by William Inge. Directed by Sam Gold. Set design by Andrew Lieberman. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Choreography by Chase Brock. Fight Director Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: Reed Birney, Maggie Grace, Elizabeth Marvel, Sebastian Stan, Mare Winningham and Ellen Burstyn, with Madeleine Martin, Ben Rappaport, Cassie Beck, Maddie Corman, Lizbeth Mackay, Chris Perfetti.
True, William Inge's Pulitzer Prizewinning 1953 study of simmering sensuality in the Heartland is no longer quite as potent as it once was. Its story of emotional repression and women set a-flutter by a day worker's chiseled torso seems pretty tame these days, and as Inge didn't attain the lasting resonance of contemporaries like Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller it's easy for it to seem a bit shallow as well. But when properly cast and executed, there's no reason that this entertainment can't still burn white hot. Alas, despite some fine ornamentation around the periphery, a thermometer inserted into the center of Sam Gold's new production would come out reading only a shade above absolute zero.
The chill here emanates from the play's potential firebrands, Madge Owens and Hal Carter. She's an 18-year-old renowned in her small town for her beauty, but secretly haunted by her compliance with her community's dicta for women: cooking, cleaning, marrying a rich college boy, and having lots of children. He's a drifter who's passing through town, an old fraternity chum of Madge's betrothed (though, of course, he didn't graduate) who regales with stories of rollicking threesomes with random women but has no anchor to call his own. The pair are wrong for each other in every way, so naturally they must fall madly in lust when they meet the day of the town's big end-of-summer outdoor shindig and completely transform each other's lives in the scant hours they share.
For us to accept that these two opposites really do attract, Madge and Hal must share at least a modicum of chemistry. Neither Maggie Grace nor Sebastian Stan is hurting in the looks department (and Stan has obviously maximized every moment at the gym), and were this evening no more than a magazine photo exposé that would probably be sufficient. But whenever the two unite to showcase the pair's explosive proclivities, a faint fizzle is all that results. Among other things, the flashpoint scene in which Madge and Hal dance, ostensibly fanning the flames of their forbidden passion, kindles not even the slightest spark.
For his part, Stan has conceived Hal as reveling in his both his sexual allure and his intransigence. His omnipresent toothy smile shows that the guy is always having a good time, and when Hal doffs his top (which he does frequently), Stan makes it clear that Hal loves to show off his best assets. But this sunniness defuses Hal's danger, preventing you from believing, as you need to, that he's a legitimate bad boy capable of snapping at any second, and that he presents the kind of threat Madge is powerless to resist. Most of the time, in fact, Stan seems less inherently menacing than Ben Rappaport, who's suitably socially oppressive as Madge's upwardly mobile golden-boy boyfriend Alan.
Without this key eroticism as its fuel, Picnic risks becoming pointless, if not altogether incomprehensible. (Andrew Lieberman's indecisive double-house set and David Zinn's unimaginative costumes don't help.) But if Gold has utterly missed the mark with that aspect of the script, his failure is not universalhe demonstrates with many of the subsidiary characters the same nimble facility with hidden longings he's displayed in much of his Off-Broadway work (including, most notably, Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation.)
Everyone else reacts to, and is reflected in, Madge and Hal's tryst, and their pain resounds as loudly as the core heat is muffled. Mare Winningham is heartbreaking as Madge's mother Flo, a faded beauty herself who's all too aware of the evanescent quality of opportunity. As the neighbor who hires Hal, Ellen Burstyn is awash in quiet despair for a life the tethered-to-her-aging-mother Helen Potts is now unable to lead. Even the newspaper delivery boy Bomber (Chris Perfetti) and two women staying in Flo's boarding house (Maddie Corman and Cassie Back) register as wanting somethingor someonemore than they'll ever be able to have. Only Madeleine Martin, as Madge's tomboyish younger sister Millie, strains, unconvincing as a tightly closed flower denied the chance to bloom.
The overall winners, however, are Elizabeth Marvel and Reed Birney. Respectively playing an old-maid schoolteacher and the ever-delaying paramour she's trying to cart to the altar, they supply an abundance of the spice you can't find elsewhere. Marvel's portrayal is drenched in loneliness, and Birney's in nervous avoidance, yet there's no question as to whether they belong togetheror why. Though embodying people ostensibly more reserved than even those masters of the art who surround them, their bursts of action are arrestinga fleet-footed hop and a quick clap of the hands help Marvel fill the theater with joy, while Birney stops the show cold merely by walking across the stage with suitcases.
When these two enter into their own drunken danceat the same time as Madge and Hal, for the recordyou experience the boiling that's otherwise absent. That their characters are not conventionally attractive, or even the focus of the scene, isn't the point. Real people are embracing real feelings, and forcing you to become invested in whether they get what they want, when they want it. If only the rest of Picnic gave you as much to chew on.