Handsome sex on a stick actor Sebastian Stan is starring in the newly opened Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of William Inge’s Picnic and according to that Ben Brantley of the New York Times Stan’s high-def abs is one of the best parts of the show.
Stan plays Hal Carter, a handsome and charismatic roustabout whose arrival in a small Kansas town shakes up the constrained lives of variously lonely and restless female residents. The women of Picnic—young or old, smart or beautiful—face limited options, and not many lead far from the quaint backyard that makes up the stage.
Inge’s women on the verge include Ellen Burstyn as Helen Potts, a neighbor who feeds Hal in exchange for a bit of yard work (hence his various states of undress), Marvel as Rosemary Sydney, a wry spinster school teacher whose eyes nearly bug out at the sight of him, and town beauty Madge Owens (Maggie Grace), daughter to Flo (Mare Winningham) and older sister to the more gawky Millie (Madeleine Martin).
Hoping for a new start, Hal rolls into town seeking help from his former fraternity brother, and Madge’s buttoned-up steady, Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport). Instead, Hal and Madge are naturally drawn to each other, completing the play’s central love triangle.
Originally staged on Broadway in 1953, in a production that included Paul Newman in his Broadway debut, Picnic can seem dated to contemporary audiences, particularly in it’s ‘aw-shucks’ colloquial dialogue. Gold’s production does little to brush off the dust or breathe new life into the story. Partial reproductions of two suburban houses dominate the stage leaving limited room to maneuver a cast of twelve, while lighting design by Jane Cox borders on bizarre.
Though the conventions of post-war gender roles that fuel the play’s action are outdated, restless desire simmering underneath genteel exteriors is the stuff of Chekhov. As randy, aging schoolmarm Rosemary Sydney, it’s Marvel who best embodies the raw desperation for companionship and a better life that most characters share. She performs sharp emotional turns that betray innate animal instincts never far from the surface.
To be fair, Stan’s abs-that-launched-a-thousand-ships are in fact integral to the play’s story, though the production’s emotional intensity doesn’t quite live up to the promise of their carnal appeal.