‘Picnic’ is pretty as a picture, but often only skin deep
Mare Winningham often plays the overlooked character – the girl left behind, the weary but steadfast wife, the beleaguered mother. Though known for her film work (the least Brat Pack-y cast member of St. Elmo’s Fire, 2 Emmys for her television work), her stage career has been a constant, quieter engagement full of artfully detailed performances. Fortunately, you’re likely to notice the great care she puts into her performance as Flo in Sam Gold’s revival of William Inge’s dated Pulitzer Prize-winner, Picnic, which just opened at the American Airlines Theater. In fact, there were times when I found myself unable to take my eyes off her.
The only problem? My eyes were supposed to be watching the lithe, godlike bodies of Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan, the show’s two de facto “stars.” Oops.
Grace, in her Broadway debut, is Madge Owens, an eighteen-year-old yearning to taste life and see the world beyond her repressive small Kansas town. And she’s not alone. All the women in her view, including neighbor Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn) and meddlesome boarder Rosemary Sydney (Elizabeth Marvel), are stagnating, dried up from the lack of male affection. Actually, it’s attention that these women crave, more than love. And so the arrival of the virile but wayward Hal Carter (Stan, in his second Broadway at-bat but first leading role), a childhood friend of Madge’s loyal beau, Alan Seymour (a rigid Ben Rappaport), throws all the women in town into a tizzy – even Flo’s younger daughter, Millie (Madeleine Martin, at times too mercurial for her still-naïve role). And that’s the major problem with Gold’s current production. Hal’s presence hauls water onto these dried-up lives. But he should be setting their world ablaze, instead of creating a destination that’s all wet.
Despite a surfeit of perfectly detailed technical work (including David Zinn’s costumes, Tom Watson’s hair and wig design, Jill B.C. DuBoff’s sound work, and especially Jane Cox’s strategic lighting and Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design), a lot of Picnic’s emotional nuance gets ignored, making the sixty-year-old play feel even dustier than it should. The bad boy-good girl dynamic between Hal and Madge should set off fireworks in Inge’s play, set around a titular Labor Day celebration, each unlocking a hidden reserve of bruising and lust, respectively. But neither has a solid grip on Inge’s dialogue nor their characters’ simmering emotions. Grace keeps Madge on the sweet side instead of emphasizing just how out of place Madge feels, a fact which drives her to hurt Millie and blue-ball Alan, and it deprives the audience of a chance for her and Hal to connect over the conflicted feelings that forbid them to feel as though they belong somewhere. Stan, for his part, whose looks have heretofore been the actor’s stock-in-trade, parades his chiseled body with the knowing hubris of a Chippendale but forgets that it must be undercut with a dollop of regret and self-loathing. Hal isn’t sorry he’s a good-looking guy, but he is supposed to be limited by the fact that he’s never seen as anything more.
Gold’s supporting cast is a mixed bag. Burstyn makes every moment count as Helen, a peek into what Madge’s future looks like if she doesn’t branch out and Cassie Beck, Maddie Corman and Chris Perfetti all project the inner knowledge of people who know their world is flat and walled-in. Reed Birney, always outstanding, is letter-perfect as nebbish shopkeeper Howard Bevans, but he’s outmatched by Elizabeth Marvel, who devours the show-stealing part of Rosemary without fully digesting it. Yes, Rosemary is the most attention-starved of all, but by the time her portrayer launches into the show’s climactic catalytic rant, Marvel has already exploded so that there is no further stratosphere for her to hit. Her fury, paired with Grace and Stan’s lack of spark, lead Picnic to feel as stripped as Hal’s famously torn shirt.
Winningham, however, weaves a coat of many colors for poor Flo, stenciling in a life history of heartbreak, love, and filial piety. Madge and Millie long for a life away from their boring town, and Flo wants desperately for her children to have more than she did. But watching Winningham care for her two children, you see that for Flo, the two of them have also always been all she ever needed.
American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. www.roundabouttheatre.org. Thru Feb. 24.
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