It's been 60 years since "Picnic" premiered on Broadway. But as Roundabout Theatre's anniversary revival proves, art, like life, isn't fair. Some of us age better than others.
Though William Inge won a Pulitzer Prize for "Picnic," it's never been successfully revived. Director Sam Gold and a plausible cast gamely attempt to recapture the traumas of small-town life that anchored Inge's four acclaimed plays: Besides "Picnic," he wrote "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Bus Stop" and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs." His trademark: women whose lives are defined by men. That hierarchy ruled gender identity in postwar, pre-feminist America.
Meet Flo Owens, deceptively low-key as played by Mare Winningham, and her daughters: beauty queen Madge (lissome Maggie Grace) and brainy tomboy Millie (restless Madeleine Martin), each jealous of the other's asset. Widowed long ago, Flo sublets a room to get by. Spinster schoolteacher Rosemary, played with veiled desperation by Elizabeth Marvel, is her tenant. It's Labor Day. Rosemary and Millie return to school tomorrow; Madge to her dime-store job.
Another widow, next-door neighbor Mrs. Potts -- played by Ellen Burstyn with wistful nostalgia for a man in the house -- is engineering a picnic. Madge's beau, Alan (Ben Rappaport), scion of the richest family in this Kansas burg, is invited. But he's not the star attraction. That would be Hal, the hunk drifter Mrs. Potts "hired" (breakfast was his wage) to tidy her yard. Hal works up such a sweat that he doffs his shirt to reveal a chiseled torso. Every female in the yard notices, though Madge pretends not to. It turns out that Hal, specimen in masculinity -- physically and emotionally as embodied by Sebastian Stan -- was Alan's college frat brother before flunking out.
When Rosemary's diffident suitor (slippery Reed Birney) shows up with a pint of bootleg whiskey, social pretense goes down the hatch. Two couples never make it to the picnic. We're not telling, but . . .
Set designer Andrew Lieberman's backyard, with its voyeuristic boardinghouse peek, looks authentic -- as do David Zinn's '50s costumes. But Lieberman's industrial backdrop ruins the open-plains environment, even with Jane Cox's day-night lighting.
As if the art of conversation was as obsolete as the theater-lobby pay phones, Act I's idle chatter reveals an actor-to-actor inability to connect. Only when yelling commences does the cast wake up and smell the roles. And do they ever. Acts II and III give us a hint of why Inge, who committed suicide in 1973, was considered a literary lion.
WHEN/WHERE Through Feb. 24, American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
INFO $42-$137; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE It’s no picnic, but then, it never was.