Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Calm Cat and Placid Picnic

Sebastian Stan in Picnic
Credit: Joan Marcus
Two of the hottest playwrights of the 1950s are represented on Broadway right now with recently-opened revivals of Pulitzer Prize-winning works. Both William Inge's Picnic (1953) and Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) are by gay authors, feature hunky heroes in states of undress, and deal with the adverse effects of repressed sexuality.Both new productions which opened in the same week are surprisingly tepid. When they first opened, the plays addressed the rampant puritanism of America which included ignoring homosexuality altogether. Today, open sexuality of all persuasions is everywhere and the directors of these productions seem to have forgotten these topics were once so shocking.

In Picnic, the forces of repressions work to stifle the happiness of all the characters. The "old-maid" schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney (played by Elizabeth Marvel here, Eileen Heckart in the original Broadway production and Rosalind Russell in the movie) derisively comments on the bare torso of Hal Carter, the macho drifter who sets off sexual fireworks in a small Kansas town.It's later revealed Rosemary led a committee to have a naked male statue "castrated" by a janitor with a chisel. She represents the hypocrisy of sexual repression.

In order for the play to work, there must be a connection between Hal and Madge Owens, the town beauty who is dating rich-boy Alan Seymour, but is bored with him. In Sam Gold's tidy but flat production at the American Airlines Theatre, there is no spark between Sebastian Stan's Hal and Maggie Grace's Madge despite the ravishing beauty of both.

Likewise, Rob Ashford's proficient but icy staging of Cat fails to find the heat between Scarlett Johansson's Maggie and Benjamin Walker's Brick. Like Hal, Brick displays his athletic figure, lounging in a pair of silk pajamas while his avaricious family celebrates the birthday of the dying Big Daddy. Unlike Hal, Brick is sexually uninterested in the female lead because he feels guilt for causing the suicide of his best friend Skipper, a closeted homosexual. Whether Brick has hidden gay longings is never fully revealed, but Williams hints at the possibility. Combined with Maggie's frustration and the plotting surrounding Big Daddy's pending demise, the homoerotic element makes for a powerful dramatic cocktail. Unfortunately, Ashford has watered it down. He and Gold have delivered a calm kitten and a placid picnic instead of the heated display the playwrights intended.

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