During the 1950s, William Inge was Broadway's cash cow among writers of non-musicals. He wrote four hits in a row: COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, PICNIC, BUS STOP and THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, all of which were turned into successful movies. He also wrote the screenplay to SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. While Tennessee Williams was mining the South for his plays, Inge wrote about folks trapped in the middle of the country. His subject was entrapment -- geographic, economic, social, moral and sexual -- and the relationship between sex, love and loneliness for people who crave a meaningful relationship. Inge was a self-hating homosexual who, like Tennessee Williams, wrote plays in which men were the object of sexual attraction. At the beginning of PICNIC, now revived by Roundabout, a gorgeous, shirtless young man (Sebastian Stan, more perfectly tanned and body-sculpted than any 1950s drifter would ever be) enters with a load of wood. From that first entrance, Hal is the object of the gaze of a small community of small-town women of all ages from 14 to 60 who, however hard they try, can't stop looking at him. There's a mother with two teenage daughters (the mother has obviously been left by another wayward stud), a middle-aged woman living with memories of a failed romance and caring for a nasty, aging mother, and a horny 40-ish spinster schoolteacher, desperate to marry her erstwhile boyfriend who simply wants a good time.
The stud may be a sex magnet, but he's also a born loser. Hal's father died in jail and Hal has spent a year in reform school. He got into college on a football scholarship, but was disliked by most of his fellow male students who were jealous of his sexual prowess and his lack of middle-class manners or mores. After years of drifting, he has come to this small town looking for help from his one college friend, Alan, who is dating the gorgeous eighteen-year-old, Madge (Maggie Grace). For all her beauty, Madge has her own insecurities. She's not bright (her younger sister got the brains but not the looks), got through high school on her looks, and now works at the five and dime store. She feels insecure around Alan and his wealthy family and clearly doesn't find Alan sexy (actually, Ben Rappaport, who plays Ben, has the looks to play Hal. Paul Newman played Alan in the film, the foil to William Holden's decidedly middle-aged Hal). Of course, Madge is drawn to Hal and everyone else shows their worst side as Hal brings out their sexual longing and frustration.
I have written a lot about Inge over the years, but actually have seen few productions of his plays. The key question about PICNIC is whether it is worth reviving as anything but an artifact of the 1950s. Unlike Williams or Clifford Odets, whose GOLDEN BOY has proved its worth in a wonderful revival, Inge is not a master of dramatic language. Odets' and Williams's plays sing. Inge's don't. The language is as flat as the landscape. Perhaps this is appropriate, but from row N of the American Airlines Theatre, it's all a bit too arid.
I saw an early preview of PICNIC, so want to be a bit careful about judging the production or the performances. Right now the production lacks rhythm. I wanted to scream "Faster - louder." The Tennessee Williams and William Inge beefcake stud victims are almost impossible roles to play. Over time, many of their lines have become camp classics ("We ain't goin' to no goddam picnic"). Sebastian Stan is as convincing as one could expect. Right now, most of the women are a bit bland. Maggie Grace is beautiful, but her lack of stage experience shows. Perhaps Madge should be pretty and blah, but it isn't a theatrically interesting choice, if it is a choice (Kim Novak made it work in the film, but Kim Novak was a phenomenon of nature.). It was a good choice to have so much physical similarity between her and her mother (Mare Winningham), but unfortunately the similarity also includes blandness. Madeleine Martin's Millie is outright nasty rather then unhappy. The part of the spinster schoolteacher, Rosemary, has been an award magnet for actresses (Eileen Heckart in the original production, Rosalind Russell in the movie) in part because she actually has more emotional variety than the other characters. Elizabeth Marvel captures all the moods, but needs to tie them better into a coherent personality. Ben Rappaport makes more of Alan than I imagined possible from reading the play. Of course it only makes one wonder why Maggie doesn't find him attractive. It's greatly about class, of course, but Maggie Grace's Madge unfortunately seemed more country club than five and dime. Sam Gold has been highly praised as a brilliant young director. I didn't see more than competence here and sometimes not that. Inge was a good craftsman, but you wouldn't know it from the way each scene tended not to end, but to fizzle out. A successful revival depends in part on the director justifying the play -- arguing for the play through his production. I didn't see any love of the play in this production.
As one who has studied and written about Inge, I was grateful to see a production of PICNIC. However, I didn't leave the theater feeling the necessity of this revival. Perhaps that will come after a few weeks more of previews. This brings up again the morality of previews. This production is being presented to a paying audience. Having paid for a ticket, we have the right to judge it now rather than wait weeks to do so.
PICNIC by William Inge. Directed by Sam Gold. Roundabout Theatre American Airlines Theatre, December 22, 2012.