So many things onstage these days champion the notion that change is good — open your mind, learn to love what you fear, embrace the unknown. So it's refreshing to have something that cheers the hopelessly stubborn.
Terrance Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy" is a celebration of people who refuse to change, who will burn every bridge on their relentless, ill-advised march toward some goal, long past sanity.
An excellent revival of the Englishman's 1946 play that opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre ends with a father and daughter literally spent by a legal fight to clear their family name that has virtually destroyed their family's upper middle class life.
"I'm afraid logic has never been on our side," the sister says.
The Roundabout Theatre Company has wisely imported much of the show from The Old Vic Theatre in London, including a handsome set and costumes by Peter McKintosh as well as Lindsay Posner's crisp direction, which finds real humor in a play where jeopardy, though localized, is very present.
The work, based on a real case, centers on Ronnie Winslow, a 13-year-old expelled from naval cadet college for allegedly stealing a postal order on the eve of World War I. The fight to clear his name takes two years and costs pile up — Ronnie's ditzy older brother must withdraw from college, his sister's engagement is threatened and the maid may have to be laid off.
The Roundabout put on Rattigan's "Man and Boy" two years ago to mixed results, but this one proves better crafted and shines with sly fun. (One zinger about the press still stings: "Whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write").
Roger Rees is excellent as the Winslow patriarch, a man whose body is beginning to betray him but whose dry humor and compassion stays intact. The touching scene in which Rees first confronts the frightened Ronnie over his expulsion reveals this father will be no stern Edwardian robot.
Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his wife is also strong, putting on a brave face though clearly anguished inside, and Michael Cumpsty turns in a fine performance as a suitor for the Winslow daughter who sadly knows he's out of her league. Charlotte Parry is coolly super as the daughter and gets feistier as the play progresses.
Alessandro Nivola as the hard-charging lawyer Sir Robert Morton turns in a comic gem as a "cold-blooded, supercilious, sneering fish" of a man, but we see the sparks fly between him and the Winslow daughter. Nivola sometimes threatens to overpower the drama with farce — watching him languidly eat sandwiches while on the phone will make you howl — but he adds a zing when the play begins to sag. His cross-examination of the Winslow boy that ends the first act is superbly tense.
The Winslow case, a debate over justice and what's right that eventually was debated in the House of Commons, is perhaps a "sordid little storm in a teacup," but this production shows that it matters dearly for some in the family, even if the Winslow boy himself naps through some critical parts, his interest in his own case depleted. The stubborn, though, fight on gloriously as he sleeps.
Let right be done!
In “The Winslow Boy,” Terence Rattigan’s compelling 1946 drama about family and justice, that declaration echoes loudly.
How great it is that the Roundabout revival — Broadway’s one and only — gets things so right.
Credit director Lindsay Posner, who staged the play at London’s Old Vic and recast it for New York. Scrupulously acted and handsomely designed, the show vibrates with humor and genuine emotion.
That “Winslow” is so engaging is all the more surprising and heartening considering the Roundabout’s deadly 2011 redo of Rattigan’s lesser work, “Man and Boy.”
Same company, same stage — but what a difference a play makes.
Inspired by a petty crime and ensuing legal battle that improbably led to London’s High Court and became front-page news, the drawing-room drama covers two years, starting in 1912.
The tidy Winslow home in Kensington is turned upside down when 13-year-old Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford) is expelled from the Royal Naval College. The reason: He’s stolen a five-shilling postal order.
His father, Arthur Winslow (Roger Rees), believes his son is innocent. He launches an exhaustive legal battle to see his son’s name — and his own — cleared.
The saga consumes Arthur’s health along with his finances and family. Wife Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) watches helplessly as Arthur withers and the case takes a toll on other children — Dickie (Zachary Booth), an Oxford scholar, and Catherine (Charlotte Parry), a suffragette with backbone, brains and a fickle fiancé, John Watherstone (Chandler Williams).
Family solicitor Desmond Curry (an endearing Michael Cumpsty), whose feelings for Catherine are an open secret, connects the Winslows with power barrister Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), who takes the case. Does he do it for prestige? Self-promotion? Something deeper? All is revealed.
In a top-flight company, Parry rises especially high. A stage pro who never takes a false step, she’s at her sure-footed finest here. Also outstanding is Nivola, who adds heat and high stakes to the mix.
Peter McKintosh’s period-soaked set and costumes, David Lander’s moody lighting and Drew Levy’s clear-as-a-bell sound all sweeten the pot.
There’s no getting around the fact that the nearly three-hour “The Winslow Boy” is dense with conversation and light on action. Sure, it’s all talk. But you’ll be all ears.
Broadway’s answer to Masterpiece Theater has just arrived in the form of “The Winslow Boy,” Terence Rattigan’s 1946 drama.
The last Rattigan play by the Roundabout, “Man and Boy,” boasted Frank Langella in peak form, but nothing else matched his deliciously evil performance. This production, which originated at London’s Old Vic and was recast in New York, is on a more even keel — it’s less flashy but also more satisfying.
This suspenseful legal drama’s greatest coup is that it never sets foot in court. Everything takes place in the Winslow family’s drawing room in pre-WWI England, where retired banker Arthur Winslow (Roger Rees, barely recognizable as an ailing older man) leads a protracted battle to restore his youngest son’s honor.
After 14-year-old Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford) is accused of stealing a money order at his naval academy, Arthur throws himself into a two-year campaign to clear his son’s name. Supporting him are his patient wife, Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), their feisty suffragette daughter, Catherine (Charlotte Parry), and their solicitor, Desmond Curry (Michael Cumpsty), who harbors an unrequited crush on Catherine.
But the key architect of the Winslow defense is a famously conservative barrister, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola).
Catherine may hate Morton’s politics, but she’s impressed by his dedication to their cause. “No one party has a monopoly of concern for individual liberty,” he says. “On that issue, all parties are united.”
At nearly three hours, the play takes its time yet never flags. Director Lindsay Posner sets a slow but steady pace, smartly detailing how the case impacts the characters.
We see the decline of Arthur’s health, as well as the toll the court fight takes on his family and finances.
Even more gripping is Rattigan’s portrayal of a smart young woman constrained by her gender.
Catherine doesn’t have the career opportunities automatically afforded her brothers, Ronnie and the party-loving, underachieving Dickie (Zachary Booth). Even her romantic options are limited — the second half is heavy on the suppressed emotions.
“Fact one: You don’t love me, and never can,” the smitten solicitor says with touching resignation after proposing to Catherine. “Fact two: I love you, always have, and always will. That is the situation — and it is a situation which, after most careful consideration, I am fully prepared to accept.”
As anybody who’s ever seen a rom-com knows, the real spark is between Catherine and Morton, whose antagonism morphs into grudging admiration. Watching Parry and Nivola stiffly dance around each other’s feelings is melanchic and delightful.
Where love’s concerned, at least — unlike in a courtroom — there is no clear winner or loser.
Much patience is demanded from the family of Arthur Winslow, the British patriarch waging a long battle to see that justice is properly served in “The Winslow Boy,” the 1946 play by Terence Rattigan that is being splendidly revived by the Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater.
Maybe I should add that a little patience may be required of audiences, too. Rattigan was one of the most successful British playwrights of the middle years of the last century, and wrote firmly in the tradition of the “well-made” play, drama that moves cleverly and deliberately, but with no great haste, through its unruffling paces. During the sometimes languid first act of “The Winslow Boy,” I occasionally found myself wondering whether we really needed to hear so much about a character’s crack cricketing (Rattigan was an avid fan), or, indeed, whether the kernel of the plot — the question of whether a 13-year-old boy stole a “postal order” (whatever that is!) of “five shillings” (whatever that is!) — was really substantial enough to merit such expansive dramatization.
But while it would give away the game to divulge whether the Winslow family’s patience is finally rewarded, I can firmly state that the audience’s ultimately is. Rattigan was rightly lauded (if sometimes derided) for the elegance of his plays’ construction and the delicacy with which he handled questions of how men and women struggle with the sometimes conflicting demands of passion and reason. As the emotional stakes of Arthur’s campaign are gradually revealed, “The Winslow Boy” opens out to become both a stirring drama about the rights of the individual in conflict with the imperatives of the government (a topic that could hardly seem more pertinent, in the post-Edward J. Snowden era), and a moving, surprisingly ambiguous tale of the price to be paid for the relentless pursuit of even an honorable goal.
The veteran actor Roger Rees gives an impeccably judged performance in the central role of Arthur, a man who appears to wear his ethical rectitude lightly, until it is challenged when his son is expelled from the naval academy where he has been studying. Little Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) insists, even through terrified tears, that he did not steal the fatal five-shilling postal order (let’s just say it’s a cashier’s check for a small sum), and Arthur’s instinctive trust in his son inspires him to question the expulsion, although the school insists that there is ample proof of the boy’s guilt. (The play was inspired by an actual case.)
Arthur’s initial challenge is met with defiance by the authorities, but he refuses to give up, and enlists the eminent barrister Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) to take up the cause. The climactic scene of the first act finds this stern and supercilious figure interrogating the quaking young Ronnie in the family drawing room, as his family looks on with dismay. The curtain falls on a classic Rattigan moment, perhaps slightly predictable but highly satisfying.
The British director Lindsay Posner, who staged a well-regarded revival of the play at the Old Vic in London this spring, has expertly cast this version, too, employing mostly American actors, alongside a few Britons — often a tricky business when staging echt-English 20th-century dramas set in tastefully appointed drawing rooms. (Credit for the tasteful appointments, in both set and costuming, go to the British designer Peter McKintosh.)
At first, I was a little wary of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the role of Arthur’s gentle wife, Grace; in the opening scenes, she seems to be deploying her genteel accent as if carrying a delicate piece of crystal around on a silver tray. But she brings an understated warmth to her performance, a slightly brittle smile betraying the anxiety Grace comes to feel as Arthur’s recalcitrance begins to take a financial and emotional toll on the family.
The boyishly handsome Mr. Nivola, too, might seem unusual casting for a wig-wearing British barrister, but he slips into the skin of this cool character with seemingly little effort. Sir Robert is the type of whom it is said that butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth; Mr. Nivola invests him with such a potent blend of froideur and hauteur that you imagine that butter wouldn’t melt anywhere within a 10-foot radius of him.
Until, that is, he finds himself warming to Ronnie’s older sister, Catherine (Charlotte Parry), whose engagement to a dashing young army officer (the fine Chandler Williams) is imperiled when the Winslow case becomes a national cause célèbre; not the done thing to have a hint of scandal in the family, after all. The British Ms. Parry is terrific in transmitting Catherine’s fortitude, which she shares with her father, as well as her sorrowful sense that, although the cause may be just, the burden it has put on the family may not be worth it. (Only Zachary Booth, as Ronnie’s happy-go-lucky elder brother, slides a little too far into the “tennis, anyone?” territory of upper-middle-class British stereotype.)
Anchoring the production is Mr. Rees’s perfectly modulated performance as Arthur, on whom the anxiety and notoriety surrounding the case take the most physical toll. When the play begins, he is obviously a man whose physical prowess is on the wane, even if his mind remains sharp, but as the months and years pass, he grows stooped and infirm. Mr. Rees movingly intimates that, underneath his confident exterior, Arthur has also become prey to thoughts of how heedlessly, and perhaps permanently, he has endangered his family’s fortunes: his eyes glitter with disturbed imaginings.
Rattigan’s drama grows more nuanced and contemplative as it proceeds, becoming something richer than a David-and-Goliath tale about the nobility of fighting for justice. (“Let right be done” is the ringing motto of Sir Robert in the courtroom.) Certainly there are moments when Rattigan’s dramaturgy feels slightly fusty: a sentiment-scented passage in which Arthur receives a letter inspiring him, impulsively and temporarily, to withdraw his suit, for instance.
But the play’s concluding scene, which brings the denouement of the court case from an entirely unexpected witness (the family, so intensely involved, manages to miss the climactic moment), is a model of understatement and quiet surprise. The manner in which Rattigan embodies resonant themes in characters who never give showy, dramatic speeches, or even let on that their hearts are bleeding and their minds are clouded with doubt, touches a deep chord.
The 1912 West London case against 13-year-old Ronnie Winslow seems far too trivial to drain two years and much of the limited family money in his defense. Accused of stealing a pittance, the boy is expelled from military academy. The father persists, to the point of obsession, to attempt to get honor restored. And yet the effort, for all its absurd disruptions, has a surprising sense of triumphal magnificence.
The same can be said for reviving "The Winslow Boy," Terence Rattigan's 1946 drama inspired by the real event. Directed with exquisite nuance by Lindsay Posner, the production -- Broadway's first since 1947 -- runs two and three-quarter talky hours and employs 11 delightfully stylish actors to make something magnificently satisfying from a petty, basically irrelevant very English story.
This was the sort of beautifully crafted, tidy play against which John Osborne's 1956 "Look Back in Anger" and fellow so-called "angry young men" of the disaffected working class rebelled.
Roger Rees is wonderful as father of the boy (Spencer Davis Milford). He is a retired banker with degenerative arthritis who goes from a dapper, reasonable fellow to a destructive obsessive in his crusade to win his favorite son's day in court -- all the way to Parliament. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio portrays the mother with a lovely romantic streak that trumps good sense.
But this is a genuine ensemble that makes incredulity seem real and very human. Charlotte Parry is both enchanting and fully-grounded as Ronnie's sister Catherine, who works for women's suffrage and whose engagement is threatened when her dowry gets spent on legal fees. Alessandro Nivola brings out the unexpected layers in the high-priced, self-promoting star attorney, while Michael Cumpsty is touching and frumpy as the former cricket player who loves Catherine.
Voracious reporters hound the door outside the comfortable, printfestooned Edwardian home, designed by Peter McKintosh, who also created the well-bred and not overly lavish costumes. Lest we believe that our time invented the tabloid mentality, old Rattigan knows otherwise.
How far would you go, and how much would you sacrifice, to defend the honor of someone you love?
If the question evokes a banal movie ad, it must be said that Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy poses it rather obviously, and offers no real revelations in how its characters respond.
Based on actual events in Edwardian England, the 1946 play -- now being revived (* * * stars out of four) at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre -- follows the plight of Ronnie Winslow, a young naval cadet expelled from his prestigious school after being accused of theft.
His father, Arthur, determines to prove the boy's innocence legally, hiring a top attorney and taking the case all the way to House of Commons. This puts financial and emotional stress on the family, which also includes Arthur's wife, Grace, and their two older children, Dickie and Catherine.
The Winslow Boy is, in fact, focused less on Ronnie than on his relatives, Arthur and Catherine in particular. The latter, a suffragette newly engaged to marry, supports her father's action staunchly, and at considerable risk to her own prospects.
At its best, the play is an entertaining, and ultimately touching, study of these characters; and the new production -- which the Roundabout Theatre Company imported from London's Old Vic (with a new cast) -- delivers that with predictable warmth and ease.
The polished authenticity is established immediately by Peter McKintosh's handsome set, which captures the upper-middle-class comfort of the Winslows' existence in the years just before World War I. (The play is set shortly after the incidents that inspired it.)
As that comfort is threatened by Arthur's crusade, Roger Rees makes the toll physically palpable. Rees' Arthur seems to age before our eyes, growing wearier and more feeble, but retains the overwhelming devotion to Ronnie that transcends family pride. It's impossible not to root for this patriarch, even when his loved ones are frustrated by him.
Charlotte Parry's elegant Catherine is, for all her differences in style, clearly his daughter. Rees and Parry form a bond that deepens as their alliance is challenged and strengthened, with the actress stressing Catherine's steely righteousness without making her seem invulnerable.
Under Lindsay Posner's diligent direction, the other actors also impress -- especially Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose Grace is as moving protesting her son's trial as she is funny later getting caught up in it; and Michael Cumpsty, who brings a graceful drollness to the role of solicitor and family friend Desmond Curry, who pines for Catherine in vain.
Chandler Williams preens credibly as Catherine's less stalwart fiance, John Watherstone, while Zachary Booth's glibly ingratiating Dickie is an effective foil to Spencer Davis Milford's earnest Ronnie. And Alessandro Nivola is fittingly suave and inscrutable as Ronnie's lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, whom Catherine initially judges to be an opportunist.
The truth, while more complicated, is no harder to predict than any of the developments in Winslow Boy; but this winsome revival will charm you nonetheless.
Like some forgotten treasure found in the attic, the Old Vic’s radiant revival of “The Winslow Boy” — now presented on Broadway by the Roundabout Theater — practically glows in the dark. Terence Rattigan based his 1946 drama on the actual experience of an upper-middle-class family whose legal defense of a son’s honor became a cause celebre when its brief against the English political establishment was debated in London’s High Court. A top-drawer ensemble masterfully helmed by Lindsay Posner and headed by Roger Rees do the honors in this tense legal drama, which Rattigan has shrewdly taken out of the courtroom and into the drawing room.
Along with “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “The Browning Version” and other works by the prolific scribe, “The Winslow Boy” is a flawless example of the well-made play. Ironically, that stylistic perfection became a liability during the 1950s, when a new generation of Angry Young Men with their strenuously messy plays drove Rattigan off the English stage. But we seem to be more tolerant of excellence these days, especially when it’s packaged as elegantly as this Old Vic production, which arrives in New York after a successful London run last year.
The family that gathers on Peter McKintosh’s modest set of a comfortable home in Kensington looks poised for a tasteful British drawing-room comedy, circa 1912. Arthur Winslow (Rees), a banker and the head of this respectable household, is a stern but fair parent to his three children: Dickie (Zachary Booth), a good-natured slacker in his first year at Oxford; Catherine (Charlotte Parry), an intelligent young woman and ardent suffragette; and 14-year-old Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford), the baby of the family and a cadet at a prestigious naval academy. Grace Winslow (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the materfamilias and manager of the domestic affairs in this house, is effortlessly charming and intrinsically ladylike, as such women are wont to be. Even the elderly maid, Violet (Henny Russell), seems a contented member of this orderly household.
The destabilizing crisis comes in the middle of the first act, after the celebration of Catherine’s engagement to John Watherstone (Chandler Williams), a young man with excellent prospects. Ronnie unexpectedly arrives home from his naval academy with the shocking news that he has been expelled for stealing a five-shilling postal order. Everyone in the family is aghast, none more so than Arthur, whose sense of honor is mortally offended. But once convinced of Ronnie’s innocence, he commits himself (and, without consultation, every other member of the family as well) to a punishing two-year battle to clear his son’s name and the family’s honor.
The play’s focus then shifts to Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), a celebrated barrister who submits young Ronnie to a grueling legal cross-examination that is mercilessly cruel but theatrically riveting. Satisfied that the boy is innocent, he throws himself into the case with a fervor that rivals Arthur’s own. An enigmatic figure in Nivola’s carefully calibrated perf, Sir Robert seems wholly committed to his legal profession, to the point of having no personal life — or feelings — whatsoever. But having met this buttoned-up Englishman in other Rattigan plays, we’re prepared for the gradual revelation that the man’s emotional reserve is a protective mask.
Arthur tossed aside his own protective covering when he committed to his Quixotic campaign on behalf of his son. Indeed, there’s something very brave but also half-crazed about Rees’s feverish portrayal of the old banker, whose obsession with truth and justice (or is it his stubborn refusal to admit defeat?) costs him his health, his fortune, and his family’s security.
The long, drawn-out, Dickensian lawsuit takes its toll on everyone else in the Winslow household. (The rather endearing exception is Milford’s sweetly clueless Ronnie, who recovers from his ordeal with the resilience of youth.) These personal breakdowns are reflected in subtle character changes that remain under the strict control of the performers. Mastrantonio allows the ever-gracious Grace a single, flashing outburst of anger that somehow adds to her dignity. Booth wins our respect for the good sport he makes of Dickie when the family’s financial misfortunes spell the end to his Oxford education. Parry (who played a Cecily with backbone in “The Importance of Being Earnest”) raises the emotional temperature when Catherine breaks off her engagement to support the family’s cause: Let Right Be Done.
In English drama, the discreet setting of a drawing room seems to lend itself to discussions of Big Ideas. “The Winslow Boy” reflects Rattigan’s preoccupation with the personal price involved in the pursuit of justice. But he also questions the bedrock assumption that truth conquers all, or that no sacrifice is too great to uphold an ideal. Although there’s no mention of it in the play, in real life the boy whose honor was at stake offered it up in World War I, when he died at the age of 19 in the first battle of Ypres. Makes you think.