Corruption and greed resonate in every age. Though Terence Rattigan's Man and Boy was written in 1963, it seems ripped from today's headlines. Set in the Depression in 1934, a charming but nefarious global financier Gregor Antonescu (Frank Langella) is scheming to save his multinational empire.
But the real pleasure is watching Langella, a master craftsman, at work. Now at the American Airlines Theater, the play traffics in 1930s melodrama terrain; it's even directed with a cinematic feel by Maria Aitken, whose 39 Steps dazzled Broadway. That's understandable, given the narrative.
The celebrated Antonescu's future hinges on a critical meeting with an American businessman (Zach Genier). Eager to escape notice, he holds it in his estranged son's bohemian Greenwich Village apartment. The father-son conflict, a battle between conscience and social indifference, is juxtaposed with an economic crisis.
Where business is concerned, the charming, scheming Antonescu is a poster boy for amorality. He skillfully manipulates all those around him, even his wife (Francesca Faridany), while his trusted confidant (a superb Michael Siberry) sustains him. His son (Adam Driver) is both caring and conflicted.
Based, in part, on the story of Ivar Kreuger, a wealthy Swedish financier known as the Match King, Man and Boy peers into the self-justifying and egotistical drives of the uber-rich and the emotional price they exact. His modern-day equivalents are plentiful -- from Bernie Madoff to the CEOs who decimated Wall Street, then demanded Washington safeguard their bonuses, despite spectacular failure.
Mostly, the production is an opportunity to see strong dramatic performances. This year, the centenary of the British playwright's birth is being marked both here and in England. His work was popular post-war -- The Winslow Boy, The Deep Blue Sea -- but he fell from grace in the late 1950s.
Man and Boy isn't Rattigan's most heralded play, but it's tightly constructed and raises interesting questions about the nature of power and emotional paucity. Derek McLane's set neatly captures the period and the irony of a wealthy, snobbish man conniving in a subterranean home. The cast is uniformly good. Still, all eyes are riveted on Langella, whose every hand gesture or verbal riposte is ripe with meaning. This is a thoughtful piece, whose entertainment value is heightened by its star.
Stars are also the subject of Orson's Shadow at the Studio Theater on Theater Row. Sadly, none shine. The play features critic Kenneth Tynan (Eric Rice), Orson Welles (Stephen Peabody), Laurence Olivier (Andy McCutcheon), Vivien Leigh (Jen Danby) and Joan Plowright (Dana Jesberger). It is 1960; Welles, the resident genius, has been a Hollywood pariah for nearly two decades; Olivier is about to leave his 20-year turbulent marriage to Leigh for the much-younger Plowright.
The backdrop: Tynan wants Welles and Olivier to work together in a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros. At best, it's an aside. The production is all gossip and exposition; there is no real action, nothing to propel the story forward.
Given the poverty of Austin Pendleton's script, it's not surprising the direction is awkward -- or that the acting is muddy and occasionally stilted. The only performer with any clarity of character is Peabody. By contrast, McCutcheon postures; he does not capture the famed Olivier. Jesberger's Plowright is portrayed as manipulative and conniving, but there isn't much to the role, while Danby's charge is to dissemble. Orson's Shadow is an amateurish, behind-the-scenes snapshot of legendary actors. These are big egos, with big stories. They deserve better.