|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
The Winslow Boy, bowing Oct. 17 at the American Airlines Theatre, is an absorbing British courtroom drama Terence Rattigan cleverly concocted without the bloody nuisance of a courtroom and all that "I object!"/"Objection overruled!" nonsense.
The setting is a safe, sedate, civilized Edwardian drawing room in a home in Kensington where the Winslow clan gather to discuss the stain on the family name, brought about when 13-year-old Ronnie is summarily booted out of Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal order from a fellow cadet. He denies the charge, and his father, Arthur, believes him — to the fanatical degree of throwing the family funds into defending the lad. This means taking on the King of England himself, through a Right to Petition, to get permission to have the boy's case brought to public trial. As Petitions fly, this one flies circuitously through the formal, official courts of law — which takes two years and four acts. With each act, the action seems to be inching toward its day in court, but ultimately it never leaves the day room.
"I think that's what makes the play great," insisted Lindsay Posner, who directed its first London revival London in 20 years and, now, its first Broadway revival ever. "The first time I ever read it, I was expecting there to be a courtroom scene, but, of course, the courtroom drama happens off-stage — apart from that short interrogation scene. That gives you a taste of what's going on, but really Rattigan's preoccupation is with the family and what the trial is doing to the family rather than the trial itself."
The patriarch pushing the case forward — for the most part, on his own — reflects the wear and tear of the ordeal quite conspicuously. His galloping arthritis has taken him from a cane to a wheelchair in two not-so-short two years, and a convalescent home awaits him at trial's end. Daughter Charlotte, a suffragette who smokes and thinks for herself, is asked to forego marriage to a fickle fiancé whose father objects to the public ruckus the family created. Dickie, the older son, is forced to redraw from Oxford, settle for a lesser station in life and take up the family business of banking.
The aforementioned interrogation is the best seven minutes in the play. Sir Robert laces into the lad about the alleged crime, grilling him unmercifully and reducing him to tears, while his family watches in helpless horror. Then comes the head-spinning curtain line that leaves the audience deliriously aghast and roaring.
"That scene was why I was dying to do the role," admitted Alessandro Nivola when he met the press in the American Airlines Theatre lobby prior to the Planet Hollywood party. "It's just a gift to an actor, and it has one of the great theatrical twists. I look forward to it every night. It's a really delightful scene and it has a lot of room for a kind of improvisational quality because the character in that moment is being very theatrical, so there's nothing you can do that's too over the top."
It's obvious he understands the character and revels in his swaggering arrogance. "I guess the guy I played in 'Mansfield Park' was of a similar class, but this guy was a really particular social milieu where, class-wise, he is of a higher status than everybody else in the play," the actor said. "Although the family the story is about is a middle-class family and well educated and well spoken, this guy is an aristocrat. There had to be a feeling that on some level he was both frightening to them and impressive, like a film star for today, and someone they were all intimidated by. He himself felt like he was slumming it by having to spend so much time with them, and yet of course he falls in love with the daughter of the family and ends up getting all emotionally involved with their cause, despite his better judgment."
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