Roundabout’s Winslow Boy revival earns a positive verdict
By Doug Strassler
Those unfamiliar with The Winslow Boy, British playwright Terence Rattigan’s seminal offering about innocence and honorability, might be surprised to find out that while almost every line of dialogue somehow addresses young Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford), he’s far from the central figure in the show. And with two performers as vital and exquisitely observant of character as Alessandro Nivola and Roger Rees volleying for that role, the current Roundabout Winslow revival that just opened at the American Airlines Theatre ends up being a win-win.
Not that that director Lindsay Posner ’s flatly-paced production manages to completely dust off all the cobwebs in Rattigan’s seminal work, an early amalgam of the courtroom drama and country house tale, although the courtroom events all occur offstage. The language of its very premise remains fundamentally inaccessible: In 1912, Ronnie is accused of stealing a five-shilling “postal order” from one of the other students at the private school he attends. (A postal order is the equivalent of a cashier’s check, and this incident is based on a true story involving George Archer-Shee, wrongfully accused of pilfering the postal order of a fellow naval student.)
Family members diverge on how to handle the matter, but Ronnie’s proud father Arthur (Rees) opts for a trial that sullies the family name in inverse proportion to the amount of fame it brings to the scandal. Posner (transferring and re-casting this production from an Old Vic run last season) has shifted what was originally cutting social commentary into a more robustly humorous class portrait, particularly in the performances of Michael Cumpsty, all Cheshire-cat grins as solicitor Desmond Curry and Nivola, entering the tale last but not least as the estimable attorney Sir Robert Morton. (Peter McKintosh, pulling double duty as both costume and set designer, makes this portrait indelibly visual, particularly with a set drenched in shades of green.)
One wishes Robert could be afforded more stage time; his portrayer’s subversive command of dialogue tells us that he didn’t achieve his lofty position without being able to read people in favor of his own secretly progressive agendas. And Nivola is well-matched by Charlotte Parry as Catherine, Ronnie’s older sister. Arthur’s obstinate choice to go to trial has sullied her engagement to John Watherstone (a very good Chandler Williams), an army officer. Suffragette Catherine straddles Rattigan’s fork-in-the-road premise; she, too, believes in proving her brother’s innocence, but understands that it comes at a cost to the Winslow reputation, and Parry nimbly, if sometimes bluntly, communicates Catherine’s frustration at possessing the same savvy as her male counterparts but fewer options. (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio acquits herself admirably as Winslow matriarch Grace; Zachary Booth is a bit more of a stretch as the remaining Winslow child.) The interplay between Parry and Nivola, bold and energetic as the supremely confident barrister bolster much of the second act’s action – or rather, lack thereof; they animate Rattigan’s overly long and talky scenes with a lively chemistry.
Rees matches Nivola’s bravado with subtlety as Arthur sees the devastation the ongoing trial brings to both his family and himself, falling apart on the outside to telegraph the extent of his own exhausting heartbreak (calling to mind a historical event that would occur decades after the events of Winslow – the early death of King George as a result of World War II). His aching depiction of illness corrupting the body is one that should not soon be forgotten, and the tender glances he casts in the direction of his youngest child underscore just why his decision was so important to him. Ask not for whom the bell of innocence and correctness tolls, this production, in its own stalwart yet stuffy way, states; it tolls for us all.
The Winslow Boy
American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. Through Dec. 1. www.roundabouttheatre.org
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