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When Life is No Picnic

January 13th, 2013

“Picnic” was originally produced in 1953 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But you’ll be hard-pressed to understand why in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival that opened Sunday night at the American Airlines Theatre.

Ellen Burstyn, Sebastian Stan, and Maggie Grace in "Picnic." (photo: Joan Marcus)

Just like the theater company’s name, this production (with a few notable exceptions) skirts the subtleties of playwright William Inge’s tinged script and punches up dramatic moments in the spirit of waking up an otherwise comatose audience.

Inge’s characters were inspired by the women he knew in his youth. “When I was a boy in Kansas, my mother had a boarding house. There were three women schoolteachers living in the house,” said Inge, “I was 4 years old and they were nice to me; I liked them. I saw their attempts and, even as a child, I sensed every woman’s failure. I began to sense the sorrow and the emptiness in their lives and it touched me.”

Centered around the Owens family, which consists of mother Flo (Mare Winningham), pretty daughter Madge (Maggie Grace) and ugly duckling Millie (with a voice to match played by Madeleine Martin), the play — on paper — kicks into gear when Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan), a young man from the wrong side of the tracks rolls into town.

Sebastian Stan as "Hal" in "Picnic." (photo: Joan Marcus)

Hal struts around the oppressive backyard set (designed by Andrew Lieberman) with his shirt off, posing and flexing and carrying around arbitrary scraps of wood. It feels more Chippendales than rural Kansas and Mr. Stan’s serviceable performance lacks the magnitude and authenticity needed to uproot the Owens family. Ms. Grace fares a bit better but her bemoaning about wanting to be more than just pretty falls flat and one can’t help but wonder if she might not be better off simply relying on her good looks.

Elizabeth Marvel as spinster schoolteacher Flo Owens and Ellen Burstyn as elderly neighbor Helen Potts carry the weight of the production’s authenticity on their shoulders. From a subtle heat flash to an orchestrated stumble through the porch door as she gazes at Hal’s strapping physique, Mrs. Potts grasps at fading memories of her youth. In a scene where Hal is teaching Millie some of the latest dance moves, she can be seen shadowing the action on the back porch. Ms. Burstyn’s interpretation feels like a slice of homemade apple pie.

Ms. Marvel’s performance, on the other hand, is the molecular gastronomy version of said dessert. Bubbling, unexpected and with vocal command that ranges from husky humor to piercing cries of desperation for the love of her ambivalent suitor Howard (played by Reed Birney), she unhinges the script from its frame with abandonment. If the rest of the cast were as emotionally invested in their performances as these two ladies, director Sam Gold would have had quite a production.

“Picnic” by William Inge

Roundabout Theatre Company at The American Airlines Theatre

Tickets $42 – $137

What the critics are saying:

“… lacking an electric current to invisibly connect its characters, this “Picnic” remains little more than a billboard for prettiness.” New York Times

“The voltage is more palpable in Joshua Logan’s 1955 film starring a smoldering Kim Novak and a feral William Holden than it is in this earnestly detailed but sexless revival.” Bloomberg

“…this Picnic is an ad hoc smorgasbord, where not all dishes are guaranteed to palate in perfect harmony. Not everything goes down smoothly, and one wonders if a bit more salt might’ve tied the whole thing together.” Vulture


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