Monday, January 14, 2013

“Picnic” on Broadway

The revival of William Inge’s Picnic, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, opened last night at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.

The first reviews are in.  The Associated Press liked it; the New York Times’ Ben Brantley not so much.

Sebastian Stan and, from left, Ellen Burstyn, Mare Winningham and Elizabeth Marvel in a revival at the American Airlines Theater.

From the AP:

Inge might be amazed that his bittersweet examination of life’s disappointments is here presented as a broader comedy, but director Sam Gold and the seasoned cast members mostly make it work. “Picnic” was one of Inge’s four consecutive Broadway hits during the 1950s, which included “Come Back, Little Sheba,” ”Bus Stop” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.” Each was made into a popular Hollywood film as well, and all were about the circumscribed, yearning lives of small-town Midwesterners whose youthful hopes and later disappointments were universally recognizable.

Gold has overlaid humorous interpretations onto Inge’s stilted and dated dialogue, often to good effect, while still keeping the period feel. If this technique doesn’t help amp up the tension that should be building throughout the play, it makes for good entertainment on the handsomely detailed set of scuffed-up houses with a claustrophobic rusty-looking wall towering above.

That tension should be caused by the problematic romantic possibility between sheltered, beautiful and bored 18-year-old Madge Owens (Maggie Grace, a little stiff in her Broadway debut), and Hal Carter, (Sebastian Stan, relaxed, sexy and swaggering), the appealing but unsuitable drifter with a checkered past.

I’ve written extensively about Inge and Picnic elsewhere and directed a high school production of it twelve years ago.  While the play may present some problems for a 21st century audience with its plain-spoken dialogue and seemingly cookie-cutter characters, there’s a lot of depth to this play, and Inge still has a lot to say.

This year marks the centennial of Inge’s birth, and the William Inge Festival in May will be a celebration of his life and work.

Photo: Joshua Bright for The New York Times.