Picnic, American Airlines Theatre, New York

Amateur stagings of Picnic, the 1953 William Inge drama in Broadway revival from the Roundabout, may have a fighting chance of matching play to production. A professional affair, however, must struggle to dispel the dated qualities, and persuade us that professionals should bother conveying the relative naivety of the situations in a small Kansas town. The challenge mostly eludes this production, directed by Sam Gold and featuring such first-rate actors as Ellen Burstyn and Mare Winningham, in which the village innocence tends toward the overdone.

For example, when Hal Carter, the classic young 1950s drifter portrayed by Sebastian Stan as an accumulation of poses, removes his sweaty shirt, exposing his torso to Helen Potts – the weathered woman who has temporarily engaged him for odd jobs – the mouths-agape response of Mrs Potts and her neighbours in the Owens household next door would have you believe that hard-working Midwestern women had never seen a sweaty young working man.

Such obviousness mutes the possibility that the late-summer sultriness can build stealthily to a climax: the response has abruptly stripped Hal and discarded this ex-football star as brutally as the two women he claims robbed him after a roadside-motel romp.

A stripped-down approach to match a stripped-down central character may one day restore Picnic’s lustre; the setting here, a hulking house and porches designed by Andrew Lieberman, tends to overwhelm the performances, even when the interiors furnish an almost “American Gothic” glimpse of domesticity.

This is a shame, because the play’s central theme – how youthful beauty can be emotionally isolating – retains a certain potency. Maggie Grace, who plays 18-year-old Madge Owens, the pretty girl drawn into Hal’s aura, gracefully registers the character’s misfit quality, even as her chemistry with him doesn’t greatly ignite.

And chemistry is key: when William Holden first touched Kim Novak, in the 1955 movie version, the effect on some audiences was erotic. If we are denied such frissons in 2013 on Broadway, we can at least take refuge in the finely etched characterisations among the supporting cast. Burstyn and Winningham movingly suggest women who’ve been ill-used by men, and Reed Birney, as a schoolteacher’s beau, Howard, displays the virtues of a restrained interpretation. When he appears on the porch at story’s end, toting suitcases, he carries the burden of all small-town frustrations along with him.


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