At this moment, Broadway is offering a chance to see the revivals of two plays that originally played on Broadway in the early 1950's. Ironically both won Pulitzers, neither won a Tony! “Picnic” by William Inge opened in 1953; “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1955.
I have already reviewed the less than satisfying “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Let's talk about “Picnic,” the Roundabout Theatre Company's sweet and hot production at the American Airlines Theatre. Boasting a lovely cast directed knowingly by Sam Gold, this slice of Kansas life is the sweet surprise of the season. A young Romanian-born American actor named Sebastian San in the role of bad boy, Hal, is the hottest thing on the “White Way” today. He's terrific in the role of bad boy Hal; but he should be lending his talents to playing Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
In the first scene, when Hal strips off his shirt to help elderly Helen Potts, played gently by Ellen Burstyn, around the house, the quiet of the country neighborhood is forever shattered. Not only does Sebastian San look good, but he sizzles with the kind of energy and charm that the young Marlon Brando brought to the stage. All the women fall in love with Hal or fear him.
Flo Owens, Helen’s neighbor, immediately senses danger, but when she finds out he's a fraternity brother of her daughter Madge's wealthy boyfriend Alan, she backs off—temporarily. Mare Winningham, in an assured Broadway debut, is Flo, whose husband was a drinker and womanizer. This divorced mother is protective of her two daughters: 18-year-old Madge, the beauteous Maggie Grace, whose beauty seems to be an impediment, and the younger, smarter Millie, who is just blossoming into a teenager. Millie is depicted brightly by Madeleine Martin, whose voice resembles the sound of chalk scraping on glass. Of course, we know that the sexual attraction between Madge and Hal is a given; however it is so cataclysmic that it tears up the stage and the families inhabiting it.
Meanwhile, in an interesting sub-plot, middle-aged Rosemary, a teacher, has been carrying on a long-time romance with Howard, a shopkeeper from a nearby town. Elizabeth Marvel, who reminds us of Lily Tomlin, here, and Reed Birney, actors' actors, are marvelous in these parts. Who remembers that teachers could not marry in order to keep their jobs? In a touching scene on a night lit softly by Jane Cox, Rosemary, tired of living alone, renting a room like others in her profession, begs Howard to marry her; pushed to the test, it takes Howard a sleepless night to come to the right decision.
Madge escapes with Hal; Alan, nicely played here by Ben Rappaport, is left without a girl; the women are left to worry. Andrew Lieberman's Set Design is perfect and so are David Zinn’s Costumes. Chase Brock's Choreography and Christian Kelly-Sordelet's Fight Direction are fine.
‘Picnic,” one of the very best revivals of the season, plays only through February 24 at the American Airlines Theatre.