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Man and Boy
By Elyse Sommer
There's no arguing with Langella's proven box office appeal as evidenced in his most recent Tony winning portrayals of the president in Frost/Nixon and Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and his long ago but still remembered Count Dracula. As Man and Boy's Gregor he once again delivers a performance that's a master class in praiseworthy and fun to watch ham acting, even managing to give it some powerful emotional nuance.
The question theater goers may want answered before investing their time and money to see this revival is: Can Langella's star turn make a play generally viewed as having its feet planted near the bottom of any list of Terence Rattigan's work rise above its Rattigan-lite standing? After all, when Man and Boy first opened on Broadway in 1964 even film and stage star Charles Boyer, known as "the last of the cinema's great lovers," failed to attract audiences for more than 54 performances.
But a lot has happend in the many years since this late effort by a playwright known as one of the most successful creators of the well made play (The Winslow Boy-1946, The Browning Version -1948, Separate Tables - 1954). With the advent of the Angry Young Men era and ever more cutting edge plays on both sides of the Atlantic, Rattigan fell out of favor. However, as 2011, the year of his centenary birthday, grew closer there was a flurry of renewed interest, not only in reviving such well-known plays as The Winslow Boy but in bringing his lesser and less often produced plays to new life (Cause Célèbre , Flare Path The Deep Blue Sea, After the Dance & Ross).
With the centenary year in full swing, the Roundabout's Man and Boy fits right in with this trend to re-embrace Rattigan's work. The play already proved its potential for new appreciation in a 2005 London production that was applauded not only because it had another ticket selling Gregor in David Suchet, but because of the timeliness of its financial chicanery plot.
Unhappily the financial misconduct that drives Man and Boy's storyline has become even more timely since that earlier revival, and the current dire economy makes it uncomfortably easy to identify with the 1834 depression setting. According to an interview by Ronnie Reich in the New Jersey Star Ledger, Maria Aitken, who also directed the 2005 London revival, addressed some of the play's flaws by using earlier drafts of the script. No doubt Aitken's reconstruction helped to give the flawed play an interesting push into the genre of business themed plays. The fraught relationship between the title characters (Gregor and his son Basil) thus is just one element in the desperate last stand of a powerful businessman who will sacrifice familial warmth and love and resort to all manner of dirty tricks in order to hold onto his dishonorably earned wealth and influence.
As Rattigan had his own complex relationship with his father to draw on for the Gregor-Basil conflict, so he had a real life role model on which to pattern Gregor's business crisis in Ivar Kreuger. Between the two world wars this Swedish industrialist built a financial empire that, despite controlling many legitimate global enterprises, made him anathema to economists like John Kenneth Galbraith who dubbed him the "Leonardo of larcenists." Kreuger's business collapsed during the Great Depression and he shot himself in 1932, two years before Gregor's desperate last stand in his estranged son's apartment.
For all the links between the 1930s depression and the current distinctly depression-like recession, not to mention the headline-making collapse of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi enterprise, this isn't really a pacey financial thriller like Wall Street or Enron. Neither has Aitken's new take on the original script eradicated the play's flaws. The relevancy to the current Zeitgeist, notwithstanding, you've got to fall in love with Langella's bravura star turn and the excellence of the production overall to also buy into a script that's too slick, stretches credulity, heads towards a too obvious ending and shows its age. This is especially true of Gregor's tapping into the period's homophobic climate to rescue a deal with utility company president Mark Herries (Zack Grenie), and keep his own house of cards from collapsing.
There's a lot of background information to fill in and forward moving action to pack into the story's 6pm to 8:30 pm time frame. The presence of Basil Anthony's (Adam Driver) actress girl friend Carol Penn (Virginia Kull) in his somewhat grungy Greenwich Village basement apartment (nicely designed and detailed by Derek McLane) establishes that he is still something of a mystery to Carol even though they've been together for six months.
With the arrival of Gregor and his loyal lieutenant, Sven Johnson (Michael Siberry), we, along with Carol, learn why Basil has rejected his real name (Vasili Antonescu) and his father's money for socialism and a modest career as a jazz pianist. It doesn't take long for Basil's hatred of his father to reveal itself as more love than genuinely hate driven so that a rather unconvincing turnaround makes him willing to let his father hide out in his apartment. Naively and even less convincingly he also allows himself to become part of Gregor's scheme to have Herries stop his accountant David Beeston (Brian Hutchinson) from blowing the whistle on Gregor's falsified records. To further stuff Rattigan's opportunities for high drama confrontations, there's the eventual arrival of Antonescu's trophy wife the Countess Antonescu (Francesca Faridany).
Of the actors portraying the characters who are satellites to the unsympathetic lead, Zack Grenier and Brian Hutchinson stand out — Grenier as Gregor's sly and guardedly gay fellow financier, Hutchinson as the righteous but befuddled accountant. Adam Driver and Michael Siberry, who last appeared on the same stage in the Roundabout's revival of Mrs. Warren's Profession are okay but don't make particularly strong impressions. Of the women, Virginia Kull's Carol Penn is a more necessary role than Ms. Faridany. As the Countess. Faridany looks gorgeous but besides being stuck in an underwritten role, she is upstaged by Martin Pakledinaz's stunning dress and cape outfit.
The play's persistent flaws and lack of a sympathetic leading role don't bother Frank Langella a bit. As he put it in the above mentioned co-interview with him and director Aitken: "I think if you give in, in any way to wanting to be sympathetic or liked, you're denying yourself characters who are epically evil or struggling on grand levels. Besides, audiences adore those characters - the Mafia movies, the monsters of history, Richard III in Shakespeare - and they love to see them get their due."
Though Langella, like Aitken, admits that Man and Boy is an imperfect work, he insists that "it doesn't have to be perfect in order to be an extraordinary evening." While I think he's an extraordinarily entertaining and charismatic actor, I don't quite buy into that. And so, I recommend this Man and Boy for Langella's performance and the chance to see a once popular playwright's rarely produced play —, but only to those willing to pay full price for a less than fully satisfying two hours of theater.
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