In 1965, Joshua Logan, who had directed the original production of William Inge's "Picnic," oversaw a musical version, "Hot September," which closed in Boston. One of the virtues of Scott Ellis' revival for the Roundabout is that it stresses how musical "Picnic" itself is.
It's not surprising that Ellis, best known for his musical revivals (including "She Loves Me," which he directed at the Roundabout last year), should have caught the musicality of Inge's writing so beautifully.
Admittedly, the music he hears does not always harmonize with what Inge wrote. "Picnic" is about the impact of a young, unabashedly virile male on a tiny, repressed Kansas town during the Depression; its rhythms are full of yearning and languor. Ellis invariably conducts them with a lighthearted beat.
One of the more interesting characters, for example, is an old maid schoolteacher, Miss Sydney. At one point we learn that she has complained about a Greek sculpture of a male torso in the school library. The school handyman takes a chisel to the part of the statue that offends her, then writes, "Miss Sydney was here."
As played by Debra Monk, Miss Sydney is brassy and uninhibited enough to do the chiseling herself. Monk is, of course, an expert comedian, but there is a level of pain and pathos quite absent from her portrayal. Only when she pleads with her long-time boyfriend, a seedy small-town rake (Larry Bryggman), to marry her do we sense the poignancy that should underscore the whole play.
The bossiness she establishes, however, does add greatly to one of the play's funniest moments: Bryggman's woebegone final exit, saddled with her suitcases, his days as a Don Juan over, a new career as a Caspar Milquetoast ahead.
The play is so strong it surmounts any miscalculations. Its final act, in which a young woman makes the same mistake her mother did, pursuing a handsome alcoholic because her longing for him is unquenchable, is deeply compelling despite the lightness of all that precedes it.
Ellis has found a powerful protagonist in Kyle Chandler. Physically imposing (that's highbrow for "a hunk"), Chandler also has an irresistible charm that makes his ability to unhinge an entire town plausible.
As the young woman who abandons a respectable future for him, Ashley Judd only comes into her own in the final scenes, particularly the one in which she realizes her feelings for him doing an impromptu dance. She does not really project the bottled-up emotions driving her until then. But her final moments are passionately eloquent.
Polly Holliday is extremely moving as her fearful mother, Angela Goethals beguiling as the tomboy sister who wants to be a writer. Tate Donovan excels in the difficult role of the respectable suitor, and Anne Pitoniak is wonderfully endearing as the next-door neighbor whose kindness toward the handsome stranger precipitates the drama.
Tony Walton's sets capture the loneliness and shabbiness of a prairie town splendidly. Its quaintness is dramatized hauntingly by Peter Kaczorowski's lighting. Susan Stroman's choreography to Louis Rosen's simple, evocative music is striking.
This is a "Picnic" to treasure.
If Edward Albee and Arthur Miller can have their artistic reputations refurbished, even resuscitated, can their near contemporary William Inge's turn be far away?
Well, yes it can. But if any play by the once vastly overrated Inge deserves well of posterity it is his 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Picnic."
And better yet, if any production of "Picnic" deserves well of the present, it is the surprisingly, almost startingly, effective staging it is now being given by Scott Ellis for the Roundabout Theater at its Criterion Center home.
"Picnic" is a play that proceeds on two levels - rather like a soap opera it is both romantic and cynical. Its sensibility towards youth and beauty, particularly the shattering effect of a nude male torso on assorted women, suggests that the homosexuality of the author is at odds with the facts of heterosexual life.
Inge himself was dissatisfied with the original Broadway staging by Josh Logan, and later, in a revision he called "Summer Brave," tinkered with the play, giving it a softer, more plaintive ending.
"Picnic" started life as a one-acter. Ellis has returned to that format, offering 105 uncut, intermissionless, yet perfectly brief, minutes. He has also moved up the action from the '50s to the '30s, taking as his authority a strong hint by the author in an early draft.
I never saw that first Logan staging but this "Picnic" certainly works better than any I have seen. Ellis extracts strong and heady melodrama from Inge's story of a demon drifter coming into a small Kansas town and disrupting the lives of women-folk, causing the heroine to desert her rich boyfriend, running away to destiny unknown.
And - unlike any other Inge production I recall - it touches nerves as well as heartstrings. Ellis creates a reality here that manages to run rather deeper than Inge's Norman Rockwell-style naturalism.
The Kansas backyard setting has been made shabbily pretty and cutely ramshackle by Tony Walton's carefully judged setting, while William Ivey Long's sweetly observed costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's vibrant lighting are equally insightful.
And the ensemble acting is among the best in town. It's dazzling yet convincingly natural. As the dime-store, ill-starred lovers, Ashley Judd (of the singing family) and Kyle Chandler (of TV's "Home Front") prove as ardently superficial and romantically doomed as anyone could wish, while, as older lovers in a minor key, Debra Monk and Larry Bryggman are poignantly funny and just as perfect.
Of the rest, Polly Holliday, Angela Goethals and the incredibly credible Anne Pitoniak are all outstanding - but it's Ellis' show. However, note the dance highlight, originally introduced by Logan and here choreographed by Susan Stroman. That is a real stroke of genius.
Ultimately, of course, no director (much less choreographer) can get substantially more out of a play than the author put into it. And although this is one of the best (and most moving) productions of a bad play you are ever going to see, you can't make more than a pig's purse out of a sow's ear.
Here is a staging to remember of a play to forget.
With the passing years, William Inge gets smaller.
One of the three big dramatists of the 1950's, along with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, today he seems a gifted but minor regional playwright. While he wrote evocatively about small-town people, their modest yearnings and the claustrophobia of their landlocked lives -- all of which he had experienced firsthand -- he lacked Mr. Miller's moral strength and Williams's poetic wildness, qualities that might have transported his plays beyond their time and place.
Even "Picnic," the 1953 drama about sexual longings in a Kansas hamlet that won Inge a Pulitzer Prize, looks sadly dated at the Criterion Center, where it opened last night. Granted, two principal roles -- Madge, the dreamy local beauty, and Hal, the handsome ne'er-do-well who blows into town, strips to the waist and promptly sends everyone's temperature soaring -- are vapidly played by Ashley Judd and Kyle Chandler. All the other performers in the Roundabout Theater Company production are excellent. And still, the play doesn't amount to much more than a flap in a henhouse.
Wisely, the director, Scott Ellis, has moved the action back to the Depression, a pressure-cooker tactic that further reduces the characters' options and sharpens their desire to flee the heat and the suffocating boredom. Tony Walton's setting -- a couple of tumbling-down houses, the dirt yard between them and the orange sky above -- is not poverty row, but it's heading there. An upstage billboard, depicting a smiling couple in swimsuits, has a large, symbolic hole punched in it.
Mr. Ellis knows this territory well. Two years ago, he directed the New York City Opera's deeply affecting production of "110 in the Shade," another tale of the lovelorn in the heartland. Although he would appear to be a born romantic, he aims for more than the usual Midwestern homeliness in "Picnic" and makes dust-bowl economics a real force.
The shortcomings are Inge's, and they're hard to ignore these days. Here, as in so much of his work, women are either repressed or desperate. They go all giddy at the sight of a bare male torso, or they wax indignant at such a brazen display of masculinity. Snagging a husband, any husband, is their consuming ambition, unless they can't tolerate the thought of one. There's not a whole lot of middle ground. In their hysterical, overheated way, they're as much 1950's cliches as Ozzie and Harriet were in theirs.
The flashiest example has always been Rosemary Sydney, the old-maid schoolteacher with the brash airs and saucy quips of a good-time girl. Debra Monk acts up a storm in the role. But the more extroverted her behavior, the lonelier she seems, and there are times when the color washes so suddenly out of her face that you know she's dying inside. Polly Holliday puts a revelatory spin on Flo, Madge's overly protective mother, by emphasizing that she, too, was once the town beauty but wasted every advantage that nature gave her. Scolding others, Ms. Holliday is really taking herself to task. And Angela Goethals, as Madge's kid sister, lurches through adolescence, thoroughly exhausted and totally excited at the same time, which is just as it should be.
Persuasive as they are, Anne Pitoniak is even better as the elderly Helen Potts, the next-door neighbor tethered to her whiny, bedridden mother. Drudgery and hopelessness are the character's lot. So what does Ms. Pitoniak do? She accentuates the spring in her aged step, the twinkle in her milky eye and the joy in a heart that refuses to give up. It's a deft, endearing portrayal of what is usually a marginal character.
The white-hot center of the play, of course, is occupied by Madge and Hal, roles that still bear the glossy imprint of Kim Novak and William Holden, who portrayed them in the 1955 film version. She is a dime-store pinup, lithe and inviting; he's a rebel without a cause, sweaty and dangerous. Between them, it may not be love at first sight, but it's definitely sex at first touch. The luminous Ms. Judd looks the part. The trouble is, she can't act it. Mr. Chandler acts his part well enough, but his boyish demeanor and unimposing physique make it impossible to think of him as a hunk.
Yet if there's nothing sexually explosive about the pair, there's no reason for the other characters to feel threatened or aroused. At the Roundabout, Ms. Judd and Mr. Chandler throw off a few damp sparks, and the rest of the cast members have to pretend they're in the presence of a bonfire. It's not a workable arrangement.
Inge, who could be retiring to the point of passivity in his dealings with people, was obsessed with the notion of the virile outsider who sweeps into town, takes possession of a reluctant heroine and ends up changing her life. ("Bus Stop," his 1955 comedy, operates on a similar premise.) Such a plot smacks less of reality, however, than of wishful thinking on the playwright's part. He knew this himself. In later years, as his own life and career turned sour, he rewrote the play, titled it "Summer Brave" and had Hal and Madge go their separate ways.
In the early 50's, critics may have hailed "Picnic" for its drab honesty, but it is really a fairy tale at heart. Hal is Prince Charming in dungarees. Madge is Sleeping Beauty. The drabness is a dodge.
"Picnic" is a natural for reviving in these revival-crazy times, and it's hard to believe that William Inge's charged yet lyrical evocation of small-town despair and frustration hasn't had a Broadway reprise before now. Scott Ellis' maddeningly uneven production for the Roundabout obscures some of the 1953 play's pleasures and suggests that film and TV beauty Ashley Judd ("Ruby in Paradise,""Sisters") needs considerably more seasoning before making her mark as a stage actress. Ditto her "Picnic" pursuer, Kyle Chandler.
Judd stars as Madge Owens, who has traded well on her beauty and is in the process of snaring a good catch in Alan Seymour (Tate Donovan), a husband who, her mother Flo (Polly Holliday) points out, would provide her with "charge accounts in all the stores."
That Madge is also a vain, empty-headed twit is pointed out with some regularity by her brainy, artistically minded younger sister, Millie (Angela Goethals). No matter; everyone dotes on the lovely Madge, including Rosemary Sydney (Debra Monk), the spinster schoolteacher who boards with the Owenses, and elderly Helen Potts (Anne Pitoniak), who lives across the yard.
This lonesome-female territory is turned inside-out one Labor Day weekend when Helen feeds breakfast to a hunky drifter named Hal Carter (Chandler), a former college fraternity brother of Alan's trying to get his life back on track. When the bare-chested Hal starts doing yardwork to pay for the meal, the sparks he sets off are hotter than any that Disney has provided a few blocks north for Broadway's other Mrs. Potts.
At least they ought to be. Poster-perfect, the muscular Chandler nevertheless lacks any sense of danger or sexual recklessness. The same is true of Judd, ill-suited to the luxuriant strawberry blond mane she can't keep her hands out of. Both actors always seem to be playing to an unseen camera; they spend more time preening than connecting with each other or the folks watching in supposed horror as the spell takes hold.
To emphasize the cheerlessness of these lives, Ellis has set "Picnic" in the heart of the Great Depression, a decade or so earlier than the original, altering some of the timely references along the way, though in truth the change neither adds nor detracts anything. He's also eliminated the intermissions, and that does help move things along.
The staging is quite reminiscent of his more effective work on the similarly themed "110 in the Shade" production for the New York City Opera. And there, too , he teamed with choreographer Susan Stroman in evoking the sensual urgency festering below the surface of ordinary people living small, crabbed lives in the middle of nowhere.
Peter Kaczorowski's lighting gets the blanching heat right, but even with its rotting billboard and ramshackle porches, Tony Walton's wood-chip-strewn set seems more quaint than mean, as is typically suggested. As always, William Ivey Long has dressed the women, especially Judd, very sexily; no one except Ann Roth does period costumes better.
Monk steals the show as Rosemary, a contrary blend of self-righteousness and libertinism who finally gets her man, and Larry Bryggman is equally fine as Howard, the man she gets (though he overplays the hangdog aspect). Pitoniak beautifully underplays Helen's delight in having this new man around, and Holliday plays Flo with a powerful sense of horror at the inevitability of it all. Goethals is delightful as Millie. Donovan is OK as Alan, as are W. Aaron Harpold as an annoying newsboy and Audrie Neenan and Charlotte Maier as Rosemary's colleagues.
But these are supporting roles, while the principals literally leave a lot to be desired. Inge was the Midwest's dramatic poet; his voice is heard only haltingly here.