Frank Langella: A Man For All Revivals

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09 Sep 2011

Frank Langella
Frank Langella
Photo by Joe Fornabaio

Terence Rattigan's Man and Boy on Broadway is Frank Langella's latest resurrection project.

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Frank Langella's trio of Tony-winning performances came in Tony-contending Best Plays: he played a flop president in Peter Morgan's 2007 Frost/Nixon, a fop in Ivan Turgenev's 1848 Fortune's Fool and a very literal lizard in Edward Albee's 1975 Seascape. Of course, the Turgenev was new only to Broadway — a lost play that took a century and a half to make it to the Main Stem — and, after its awkward, anachronistic appearance among the Best (New) Plays nominated of 2002, Tony rules were changed to head off at the pass all arcane pieces and call them by their proper name.

That name is revival, and it's a field where Frank Langella has particular flair and finesse. He has been absolutely fearless in following the illustrious likes of Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Alfred Lunt (Design for Living), Raymond Massey (The Father), Clifton Webb (Present Laughter), Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons) and, now, Charles Boyer (Man and Boy). Plus, if you factor in his replacing Ian McKellen in Amadeus and William Hurt in Hurlyburly, reprises constitute the bulk of his 17-show Broadway career.

Man and Boy lasted 69 performances in London and 54 on Broadway in 1963. With extensions, their combined total should be topped by the Langella retread, which Roundabout Theatre Company is now staging at the American Airlines Theatre.



The late Terence Rattigan, who wrote this play in 1961, predicted it would not be a hit in his lifetime. Its second, current shot at Broadway is the result of a successful 2004 London revival that starred David Suchet (who, like Langella, has been a Broadway Salieri). Maria Aitken, the actress-turned-director of The 39 Steps, helmed that production and is repeating the task on this shore.

What Salieri was in the musical court of Emperor Joseph II — a sarcastic, single-minded schemer committed to winning at all costs — Gregor Antonescu is in the world of international high-finance. Dodging the FBI, the evil wheeler-dealer commandeers the Greenwich Village apartment of his son and girlfriend for a shady powwow with his financial archenemy, a closeted gay man. How low is he prepared to go to stay on top? Would you believe pawning his son off as a homosexual lure?

Langella as Gregor Antonescu
photo by Nigel Parry

"I think that's what might have scared Rex away," reasons Langella. [Rattigan wrote the role expressly for Rex Harrison, a longtime friend and star of the playwright's first big hit, 1936's French Without Tears.] "Rex didn't want to do it because he found it a little too effete for his tastes." Laurence Olivier likewise declined. Happily, Boyer came across the manuscript at a party and insisted on doing it.

By any other name, Man and Boy is Father and Son — only, as Langella points out, Rattigan's title "could lead you to believe it's about a homosexual relationship. It isn't. It's the story of a boy calling his father to task, facing him down with morality and honor. When his son is around, the man is utterly aware that his conscience is facing him. The battle that ensues between them is the soul of the play. To have this young man he now needs to put over this one last sham — to have his son face him with this crime — is, I think, more difficult than facing a judge or jury.

"It's a fascinating play — and very modern, even if it is set in 1934. Rattigan was referencing Ivar Kreuger, a European Ponzi-scheme artist who killed himself, and that dictated the period, but the obvious ties to Madoff and his son's suicide are there. Fifty years after it was written, people have no problem buying it. Just look at the headlines. There's very little now in human interaction that shocks us — from the murder cases with young children to the homosexual secrets of our politicians."

As revival choices go, Man and Boy is as shrewd and off-the-beaten-path as The Father, an August Strindberg play remembered mostly for bringing Grace Kelly to Broadway. It came about the same Roundabout sort of way: "Todd Haimes [Roundabout's artistic director] and I had been talking about doing [Jean Anouilh's] Becket, and we couldn't find a co-star, so he said, casually, 'Have you read The Father?' I said no. He sent it. I read it. I called him and said, 'Absolutely.' It's one of my finest memories of my work in New York." (Also, it being an Off-Broadway portrayal, it only won him a Drama Desk Award in 1996.)

Langella began acting in New York Off-Broadway in 1963, when Man and Boy was lifting off. He started in a revival, naturally: Augustus and Ruth Goetz's The Immoralist, known primarily for bringing James Dean to prominence nine years earlier.

"[The Immoralist] opened up the Bouwerie Lane Theatre in late August–early September — the time of year I'm doing this. There's something about coming into New York in the fall that's kind of like going back to school, getting your book bag ready, sharpening your pencils. I love coming back in the fall. I like the air. I like the feeling of crispness that starts in the beginning of a new semester."