Back in 1963, I decided to skip seeing Charles Boyer’s performance in the New York premiere of Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy (American Airlines Theatre). Boyer was playing a shady financier, apparently based on the “match king” Ivar Kreuger; I’d seen Boyer the year before applying his grave, soft-spoken Continental charm to the role of a shady art dealer, apparently based on Joseph Duveen, in S.N. Behrman’s Lord Pengo. Behrman’s play had been shapeless and slow-moving; Boyer skillful but monochrome. Man and Boy sounded like more of the same, another few yards of standard-pattern fabric unreeled by a master haberdasher.
So I didn’t meet Rattigan’s curious, not unintriguing play till last week, when the Roundabout unveiled it as a vehicle for Frank Langella, whose acting is about as grave and soft-spoken as a marching band at halftime. Not that Langella is all noise: The particular pleasure of his performances comes from the precision with which he applies his old-stager’s technique to the specifics of his role. A showy actor by instinct, he has the discipline to hold his innate flamboyance in check until the character has some justification for behaving flamboyantly. The fun of watching him leap for these glittery tidbits—a silent seizure of gleeful triumph here, a sudden upsurge of fury there—is balanced by the elegant way he weaves them into the overall texture, binding them together with a smiling, soft-spoken charm not unlike Boyer’s.
Playing Rattigan’s shabby hero calls for a lot of charm. It’s the mid 1930s. Gregor Antonescu (Langella) is a king of international finance who’s also a Madoff-like crook, hailed for bailing out this or that European currency, while secretly building his giant fiscal empire out of nonexistent assets, shuttling debts from one dummy corporation to another. (The tactic strikingly anticipates the “raptor” accounts into which Andrew Fastow shoveled Enron’s losses.) But a zealous young accountant (Brian Hutchison), working for an American tycoon (Zach Grenier) with whose solvent firm Antonescu was planning a merger, has caught the discrepancy: Antonescu’s fraudulent fortune is about to vanish.
But Antonescu has, he thinks, one last ace to play: The tycoon is secretly gay. Antonescu’s handsome illegitimate son, Basil (Adam Driver), though straight and estranged from his father years before, can be manipulated to serve as unwitting bait. Antonescu arranges a late-night business conference in Basil’s Greenwich Village basement flat and charms the boy’s live-in girlfriend (Virginia Kull) out of the way and dresses the scene, with help from his right-hand man, Sven (Michael Siberry), to suggest that Basil is Antonescu’s boy in an altogether unfilial sense.
This contrivance, clearly doomed not to succeed, serves two dramaturgic functions: It underscores the desperation that Antonescu feels but never puts into words, thus giving the lead actor a hard-driving subtext with which to keep the rickety vehicle moving; simultaneously, it lets Rattigan kick, as so often in his later plays, against the wall of rules with which the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship hamstrung British playwrights until its abolition in 1968. Homosexuality was one of the censorship’s particular no-nos; Man and Boy neatly stitches it into the story without employing any deletable explicitness.
Regrettably, the neatness, like the play’s dramatic interest, begins and ends there. Antonescu’s scheme takes up barely a third of the evening. Rattigan fills much of the rest with unconvincing boy-girl tensions, and with a second contrivance, both murky and dull, involving Antonescu’s estranged wife (Francesca Faridany). The drama’s emotional gut, the fraught relationship between the charismatic, crooked father and the adoring, angry, twice-betrayed son, gets twiddled with, often repetitively, rather than deeply explored.
Some of this last shortcoming might stem from Maria Aitken’s mostly apt-looking, but oddly off-kilter production. Faridany doesn’t fit any of the clues the script gives Antonescu’s wife; Kull and Siberry play effectively but without warmth. Grenier is expectably reliable; Hutchison has apparently been pushed toward caricature. Then there’s Driver, one of the most arresting, and maddening, young actors around. His frequent moments of interest here are never sustained; the performance becomes a series of intermittent blurts, a sketch by an artist who doesn’t know how to make his lines add up to form a picture. That’s no way to hold the stage opposite Langella’s canny, painstaking flamboyance.