American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through February 24, $42-$127
It’s been nearly sixty years since William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Picnic debuted on Broadway, with Ralph Meeker’s Hal and Paul Newman’s Alan battling over Janice Rule’s Madge; in the 1955 film, it was William Holden and Cliff Robertson with more than just their eyes on Kim Novak. So while the Roundabout’s current revival of Picnic at the American Airlines Theatre doesn’t boast quite the star power of those versions, it is still a charming and fun frolic through a bygone era. The two-hour play takes place in a small Kansas town in 1950s America that is preparing for the annual Labor Day picnic. Local beauty queen Madge Owens (Lost’s Maggie Grace) assumes she’ll be going to the picnic with Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport), a relatively boring and self-satisfied college student from a wealthy family, along with her younger sister, the tomboy Millie (Californication’s Madeleine Martin), and their somewhat dowdy mother, Flo (Emmy winner Mare Winningham), whose husband walked out on her many years before, leaving her to raise her children on her own. The Owens family lives next door to Helen Potts (Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winner Ellen Burstyn), an older woman who has given up whatever life she could have had in order to care for her ailing mother. To get a cheap thrill, Helen hires a stranger, Hal Carter (Gossip Girl’s Sebastian Stan), to do some yard work for her, barely able to control herself when the Adonis-like man rips off his shirt, revealing his taut, sweaty chest. All of the other women notice as well, including spinster schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney (four-time Obie winner Elizabeth Marvel), who has been dating dull but reliable businessman Howard Bevans (two-time Obie winner Reed Birney). It turns out that Hal is a down-on-his-luck former fraternity brother of Alan’s who has come to town to get back on his feet, but after he is instantly attracted to Madge — and perhaps vice versa — things don’t exactly end up as planned.
In Picnic, Inge, who also wrote such plays as Bus Stop and Come Back, Little Sheba and won an Oscar for his screenplay for Splendor in the Grass, cleverly deals with people’s hopes, dreams, and expectations in this funny, tender, and tense drama that explores the soft underbelly lying beneath the old-fashioned values of small-town America. Surprisingly, the acting is a mixed bag, with Marvel overplaying her part, Winningham underplaying hers, and Burstyn at times seeming to be lost while Grace, Birney, and Martin are more effective. Director Sam Gold (Look Back in Anger, Seminar) makes excellent use of Andrew Lieberman’s charming set, a shared backyard that firmly sets the action in America’s heartland. When Madge is up in her room, applying her makeup in front of a window that looks out on the backyard, the audience is sneaking a peek at her just as several characters are doing, everyone dreaming of the possibilities life holds for us all. In a season dominated by revivals of long-ago Broadway classics, including Golden Boy, The Heiress, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Picnic is a fine addition.