The Roundabout revival of William Inge’s Picnic (American Airlines Theatre) is the sort of event that makes people wonder whether anyone should revive old plays at all. An unusually problematic case, Picnic begins with several strikes against it. A dramatically tenuous piece of early 1950s “Chekhovian” moodiness, it doesn’t show Inge at his best—he did better both earlier, with Come Back, Little Sheba (1949), and later, with Bus Stop (1955).
Nor does Inge himself stand tall enough among American playwrights to make a second-drawer piece like Picnic spark continued fascination. Some of his failed later plays, or his extremely outré one-acts, might actually arouse greater interest these days, but such obscurities are not in the Roundabout’s line. Don’t expect The Tiny Closet or Natural Affection to be turning up there anytime soon. Picnic, which the company has already revived once (1998), scored a commercial hit in 1953, won the Pulitzer, and spawned a still-familiar movie. Such are the criteria for selecting plays to revive on Broadway these days.
So we get Picnic, which has some charm, some compassion, some heartfelt emotion, and some genuine skill in its writing, but not quite enough of any of these to make its revival a thrilling rediscovery. And we get it in a production by relatively young artists who, trying to feel their way back into the stage life of six decades ago, hit their marks around half the time. Hence a play that, when first produced, captured the mood of its own day excitingly now comes off as rather squishy and predictable. There’s no shame for anyone involved, Inge included; the result just feels insufficient.
Two houses share a backyard in a small Kansas town. In one, Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) struggles to raise two daughters, pretty Madge (Maggie Grace), just emerging into adulthood, and bookish, tomboyish Millie (Madeleine Martin), fiercely battling puberty’s onset. In the other, beleaguered Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn) trudges through drab days, stuck attending to her cranky invalid mother (Lizbeth MacKay), all offstage screech and banging cane. This mini-panorama of female unhappiness—even beautiful Madge feels unhappy after years of being treated solely as an attractive object—is rounded off by Flo’s boarder, Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel), who describes herself, unhesitatingly but with deep regret, as “an old-maid schoolteacher.”
Inevitably, a male presence turns up to ripple this pool of estrogenic frustration. Just in time for the annual Labor Day picnic, here’s Hal (Sebastian Stan), hunky redneck drifter and college dropout, who has nominally come to hit up his ex-fraternity brother, Alan (Ben Rappaport), Madge’s wealthy but seemingly unmotivated boyfriend, for a loan or a job.
He’s needed: Masculine energy runs low in Inge’s Kansas. Alan can barely summon the enthusiasm to peck Madge on the cheek, while Rosemary’s shopkeeper suitor, Howard (Reed Birney), has hardly gotten beyond that point in years of semi-official courtship. Hal, whose principal pleasure in life seems to be charming women by doing household chores with his shirt off, tilts the playing field, luring Madge to her sexual awakening and, with help from Howard’s pocket flask, arousing Rosemary till she and her beau cross an irrevocable borderline.
Inge notates the goings-on with much affectionately recorded detail, but also with far too much facile contrivance and Freud-for-dummies signaling. In the somewhat willed innocence of early ’50s Broadway, one can easily imagine Joshua Logan’s original cast—full of young comers like Eileen Heckart, Paul Newman, and Kim Stanley—scattering enough swoony star power to dazzle theatergoers. In the harsh, flat sunlight (by Jane Cox) of Sam Gold’s new production, the dazzle has faded considerably, leaving the plastic struts that support Inge’s ostensible realism uncomfortably naked.
Andrew Lieberman’s set makes the Owens house loom large, shoving the actors onto a narrow downstage strip. Winningham and Burstyn bring quiet conviction to their lines; Birney and Marvel give theirs a sizzling theatricalist edge. But the younger actors, far too often, seem to be reciting theirs by rote. Stan in particular comes across as a sort of Kansas dybbuk—Hal’s superb body inhabited by the bland, noncommittal spirit of Alan. Even Hal, though, might find his machismo dampened in a Kansas where the moon glow that gave the movie version its theme song has been replaced by a glaring street lamp.