THE BLOG
01/14/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

First Nighter: Picnic Seesaws, I, Malvolio Sasses

Forgive me for putting it this way, but Picnic is no picnic. Or if the Roundabout revival of William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play -- about the drop-in macho fellow who stirs up a group of women for about 24 hours in a sleepy Kansas town -- comes across as something of a picnic, it's one invaded by too many ants.

Okay, the metaphor will be discarded now in order to get to the very real problems that director Sam Gold's production runs into -- the first of which is the play itself.

The frequently shirtless interloper is Hal Carter (six-pack-abbed Sebastian Stan here), and when Inge's steamy work initially appeared, it seemed as if -- I'm virtually certain about this -- he was intended to represent the kind of male life-force needed to awaken at least a few signs of awareness among several deeply dissatisfied ladies who've previously been misused by men.

(Surely, that was the point of the movie adaptation with box-office draw William Holden at a point in his career when he wasn't going to play anyone out to do wrong. Not when he and Kim Novak danced to "Moonglow" with Steve Allen's theme in sultry counter-point and the movie-going public obligingly swooned.)

Now it's over half a century later, and Hal -- who always had something in common with Stanley Kowalski, because Inge so compulsively wrote in Tennessee Williams's shadow -- doesn't look like such a positive figure. As Hal makes a play for pretty but dim-bulbed Madge Owens (Maggie Grace, in a Broadway debut) and thereby puts his friend and Madge's fiance Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport) out of joint and out of the picture, he seems to be nothing but a thoughtless trouble-maker, an anti-life-force.

The unfortunate sea-change (flatland-change?) is undeniably attributable in part to Inge's miscalculation. Yes, Hal, who's spent his life feeling out of place and whose initial presentation of himself is full of bluster, today impresses as someone who can only do damage to the people he encounters. But negative implications on the American Airlines stage may also come as a result of Gold and the frequently bare-chested Stan reaching the wrong conclusion about how best to interpret Hal.

The character is aware of his powers to charm the ladies, but there's sufficient evidence in Inge's subtext that Hal isn't quite that aware and indeed can't account for, or even take in, the damage he's doing -- and will continue to do once he leaves these confines as precipitately as he arrived. What's missing in Stan's performance of a show-off only slowly allowing a low opinion of himself to emerge is an element of core sincerity, a measure of bedrock decency.

Without it, of course, Picnic -- where Madge has to make a decision about whether or not to follow her Pied Piper -- isn't so much about a young woman's mustering the gumption to escape enervating local strictures, to throw off smalltown real and spiritual torpor. Instead, the take at hand implies this kind of Kansas torpor is defiantly inescapable. That might be true, but it may not be Inge's truth.

With the focal figure registering as off-kilter, Gold's Picnic is immediately hampered -- a situation compounded by several other aspects. The foremost isn't exactly that the cast doesn't come through. Madeleine Martin as the younger sister Millie, forever complaining about not being "the pretty one," is very good. So is Reed Birney as unimaginative local businessman Howard Bevans. Chris Perfetti in a brief role as nerdy paperboy Bomber Gutzel also makes his mark. Rappaport's Alan is a convincing hometown boy of some but not enough appeal.

Surprisingly, though, three actors in significant women's roles don't rise much above the more than adequate. And -- get this -- they're played by Ellen Burstyn as mother-dominated next-door neighbor Mrs. Potts, Elizabeth Marvel as marriage desperate school-teacher Rosemary Sydney and Mare Winningham as practical-minded Flo Owens.

Ordinarily, these three are outstanding at whatever they take on -- Winningham most recently in Tribes, Marvel most recently in Other Desert Cities and Burstyn in everything. They all look right in David Zinn's period housedresses and cheap suits, and they have their sharpened techniques at the ready. Still, they don't seem as if born to assume these guises. As for debutante Grace, it's another case of fine, but not special.

Andrew Lieberman's set with sections of two clapboard middle-class homes pushed almost to the stage apron could be puzzling. It was for me, because of the high upstage wall of ribbed, rust-colored material. But then my companion said, "Maybe it refers to the railroad tracks next to the houses and hemming the houses and the women in?" Maybe it does, and cleverly. So on balance, cheers to Lieberman.

Gold's work -- he's awfully busy these days -- has its ups and downs. Putting aside the Hal glitch, it's only fair to say he's extremely clever about letting the audience know what's going on in the Owens house by keeping the activity there regularly visible through Lieberman's strategically placed window.

Nevertheless, he completely forgets to point up one of Inge's major observations. The Picnic picnic takes place on Labor Day, and it's talked about as a particularly warm one. Yet, other than Hal working up a sexy sweat doing chores for Mrs. Potts, nobody gives any signs of wilting under the weather. (Incidentally, the 1965 musical adaptation that opened and closed in Boston was called Hot September.) The result is that this take on the play isn't so hot. In more ways than one.

When in I, Malvolio at the Duke Tim Crouch begins cavorting as the much-maligned court retainer of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, he's wearing long-johns with a urine-stained crotch, a split up the rear-end and the gartered yellow stockings anyone familiar with the Bard's laugher knows all about.

Severely humiliated for his strait-laced (if not gartered) manner, the Malvolio of the earlier opus exits the comedy bellowing "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." It's a declaration that sure-as-shootin' gives valid impetus to Crouch, who's making a tradition of solo shows in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-like, he elaborates on the late, great Will's minor characters.

Before getting out of Malvolio's soiled clown's get-up into something more in keeping with the man's regular duties, Crouch motor-mouths at the audience for about an hour and is delightful doing so. The only drawback -- a relatively slight one -- is his final revenge. It's inconclusive, where nothing else here is.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.