PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Man and BoyŚMy Dad, the Cad
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Man and Boy at the American Airlines Theatre.
Whatever sins Gregor Antonescu commits as a financier, they pale in comparison to his sins as a father in Terence Rattigan's 1963 play, Man and Boy, which opened for serious critical reassessment Oct. 9 at the American Airlines Theatre.
Frank Langella, whom Roundabout last presented in some uncharacteristic halo lighting as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, picnics on the part of a maliciously manipulative biz-whiz who is not above offering up his own son (Adam Driver) for sacrifice to a gay financial adversary (Zach Grenier) if that is what is required to salvage his hopelessly lopsided books.
At a quick glance, one can read Antonescu as a facile Madoff make-over: an opportunistic wheeler-dealer who has no qualms about jeopardizing the world economy if it furthers his own wealth—and Langella plays him accordingly, almost with blinders, with a single-mindedness that never loses sight of his goal while going through the polite, perfunctory amenities to those immediately around him—but in truth, Rattigan's model for Antonescu was Ivar Kreuger, a pioneer Ponzi-player who went to rack, ruin and inevitable suicide in 1934, four years before Madoff's birth—hence, the play's Depression period and why it seems so topical.
Whatever the reference, he must have loomed like an old friend to Langella, who specializes—if not delights—in squeezing every drop of venom out of imperious monsters. "This is the first Rattigan play I've ever done," admitted the actor after the show, "and I think his language very restrained. I found the character fascinating on first reading, but he's exhausting to play because you can't hold back anything."
Well, you can, but Langella doesn't, and part of the perverse pleasure of the first act is watching him micro-stage-manage a situation where he dangles his (resolutely straight) son as homosexual bait to a susceptible businessman, distracting the latter so he won't deliver the death blow to Antonescu's rapidly crumbling empire.
He seems to have done his worst by the end of the first act. Then, Rattigan spends Act II backpedaling for a little sympathy for the devil, trapped like Hitler in the bunker by enveloping scandals, duking it out with those nearest and dearest to him.
The after-party was held at the latest reincarnation of Copacabana, which has been hopping all over town and finally come to rest at 268 West 47th Street, right next to Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the original production of Man and Boy played with Charles Boyer doing Antonescu.
As is Roundabout's wont, party drinks were concocted and named after characters in the show just seen. Rokk Vodka with orange juice is "GA's Game Plan," and Rokk Apple Vodka with cranberry juice is "Sven's Scheme." (GA are the initials of Langella's character, and Sven Johnson is his officious, shock-absorbing deputy/henchman.)
Michael Siberry, who plays the indispensible Sven, was Driver's father when the two of them last played the American Airlines Theatre a year ago in Mrs. Warren's Profession. Here, Siberry mostly sits quietly on the sidelines simmering with rage while the chronically crafty Langella does his worst to Driver.
"I like that Sven is this watching figure in the background who keeps cool and distant and remains calm—he's a good factotum," said Siberry. "And I love Rattigan's writing. I did a production of his After the Dance once that toured England. It was one of his earlier plays, and this is one of his later. His dialogue is beautifully written. It's great for actors because everything you say is very well put together."
A recently relocated Brit, Siberry is one of the most conspicuously and steadily employed actors around, following a Lincoln Center play with three Roundabouts in a row. "It was nice of them to work it so that I could finish one show and start the next. It's good to work with an organization that knows what both sides are doing."
Next up? "Nothing," he sighed with a tinge of genuine relief. "My run has come to an end, but it was wonderful to be able to do things that are so different—big contrast."
Driver, contending constantly with massive mood-swings of love and hate when around Langella, is very much "the soft son" the corrupt financier has no use for. "I like the humanity in the role," said the actor. "There's a lot of humanity against inhumanity in this father-son conflict, and you can't ask for a better scene partner than Frank. He comes at you with such fury that all I feel I can do is just react to him. He makes my job a lot easier than it would be with another actor, I'm sure."
Another young man who's pretty much crushed by Big-Foot Langella is Brian Hutchison, his business rival's milquetoast accountant who catches Langella in a $6 million discrepancy. Langella treats him like a pesky gnat—which couldn't be better for Hutchison: "I'm thrilled to be doing this. It's a great scene with him, and it has been a lot of fun for me to work on that progressing frustration and apoplexy.
"I auditioned for Frank at one point, and he saw what I was bringing to it, but it was interesting for me to see how he built his character, how he started to mess with me and make me really frustrated. It was fun in rehearsal and especially in performance when stuff went to a deeper, darker place. It just got grander and slyer and harsher."
A tell-tale touch that makes this contest with Langella a no-contest is the nerdy, plastered-down hair that Hutchison affects. "Did you enjoy that? That's, like, my own touch. They do my hair. I go back to the dressing room and make sure it's slicked down. I'm glad somebody noticed. I thought it was just for my own enjoyment."
The most electrically charged and potent relationship on the stage is the false one Langella masterminds with his nemesis, played much like a gay Edward Arnold by the gifted Zach Grenier, who's quick to pick up on the loaded, coded homosexual signals Langella keeps letting slip whenever a distraction is necessary.
"There's a subtext and a subtextual text and a text," he explained. "I get to play these three things, and one of the subtexts I get to share with the audience so, for an actor, it's just this wonderful thing—this lie-within-the-lie-within-the-lie sort of thing.
"I have so much fun working on this thing. Also, one of the reasons why you evoke the name of Edward Arnold is because of the style of the piece. It's Terence Rattigan, and there's a je ne sais quoi about his style of writing and nuance and class."
Grenier, last seen on Broadway as Ludwig von Beethoven in 33 Variations, is not surprised he would make beautiful music with a former Broadway Salieri like Langella. "We worked together before in A Man for All Seasons. I played Cromwell, and he played Thomas More—or, I should say, he played Thomas More, and I played Cromwell—and he is still just this wonderful collaborator."
In addition to understudying Grenier and Siberry, John Hickok makes a nightly contribution sight unseen as the radio announcer reporting on Antonescu's latest dire downturn. "It runs in my family," Hickok offered about the voiceover work. "Dad's Bill Hickok—not the Wild one—who did 'The Milkman's Matinee' at WNEW-AM for many, many years in the '70s, so I come by this honestly."
Hickok fils, who was very visible in Aida and Little Women, is currently working on a one-man play about an ancestor of his who came over on the Mayflower. "Stephen Hopkins was an amazing, Zelig-like figure who appeared in these crucial moments in history and is actually written into a Shakespeare play, The Tempest. The storm that happens in The Tempest is a storm that actually hit the ship Hopkins was on when he was heading for The New World."
There are women in the show. Father and son—this Man and Boy—both have Significant Others: Virginia Kull is the actress girlfriend of the son—"an absolute firecracker," contended Kull. "She's got nerve. She's got gumption. She tells it like it is. She's not afraid to speak the truth." Not only that: from the look of the two sofa cushions on the floor, she appears to be a pretty volatile influence.
So, too, is the second Mrs. Antonescu, but not necessarily in a good way—a trophy wife found in a London typing pool and anointed countess through the sheer power of money. "I love her survival skills," admitted the actress playing the part, Francesca Faridany. "She really sets out to make her life better than the one she had. Even at the end, she says, 'Don't turn around and blame me for not wanting to be next to you when you blow your head off. I don't know what you've done, but you've never let me in until this day so, no, I'm going away.' I love her for that."
And, a woman directed the play as well—twice. Maria Aitken helmed a successful London revival of Man and Boy in 2004 with David Suchet, prompting this stateside echo with Langella. Has her direction changed transatlantically? "Oh, completely," she insisted. "I don't even remember what I did. I never keep a record of these things. It was at least seven or eight years ago. The interesting thing is what sticks is the rhythm of some lines and insights that were worth having, but physically it's different—completely. I have different actors."
Not the least of whom is Langella instead of Suchet. "Frank and I have shaken down to a great rapport. I've never been as frank to any actor as I am with him. He can take it. If he recognizes the strength of a note, he takes it and executes it instantly."
Also, the passage of time from the London production to the American one has only deepened its topicality, Aitken was quick to point out. "It's much more relevant now. It's rather eerie how apropos the whole thing has become. I mean, it's an interesting play at any time, but now it resonates in a rather frightening way, I think."
Her next project excites her: "I have the great joy of doing my favorite play at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. I'm going to do a Private Lives in May, with rather young people—because I think the older they are, the less attractive the play is—so the Huntington is allowing me to do it with these young people."
The scruffy Greenwich Village apartment of the son, where the play is set, is nowhere near the tidy, ordered, shelf-filled sets usually associated with Derek McLane (vide his Tony-winning 33 Variations). He got there, he said, by looking at a lot of pictures of old New York apartments in the '20s and '30s and walking around Greenwich Village a lot. I hope it evokes a special feeling of recognition for the audience—one of those 'Aha! I know where we are' moments."
Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, continuing his rush of lush '30s get-ups (Anything Goes, Lend Me a Tenor), outfits Langella in a gorgeous, broad-shouldered suit as befits a high-flying financier, and he has provided Faridany with a stunning fashion moment where, with a slight adjustment, her hood falls down around her shoulders and becomes a jacket—voila! a neat trick, that.
"This is the kind of theatre I love to design," said Pakledinaz, "where the characters are so succinct and precise. Roundabout couldn't have been lovelier. They said, 'Take as much time as you need. You can have anything you want in budget and fabric.'"
Roundabout regulars made up much of the opening-night star-cluster: Adam Godley, the Tony-nominated "swashbuckler" of Anything Goes, with John Hartner; Bye Bye Birdie composer Charles Strouse with wife Barbara; She Loves Me lyricist Sheldon Harnick; writer Rick Elice promising an open-ended return of Peter and the Starcatcher this season, co-directed by his partner, Roger Rees, currently heading The Addams Family, and Alex Timbers; the co-writer and director of Everyday Rapture, Dick Scanlan (currently retooling The Unsinkable Molly Brown) and Michael Mayer (readying On a Clear Day You Can See Forever to start previewing Nov. 12 at the St. James); Dana Ivey (giddily on the brink of a Greek vacation); Laura Osnes, late of Anything Goes, high from her first week of rehearsing Bonnie & Clyde, with hubby-photographer Nathan Johnson, who shot the B&C poster; Byron Jennings with wife, Carolyn McCormick; Old Acquaintance's Margaret Colin; novelist Patrick McGrath, Marylouise Burke, Laila Robins and Bill Irwin, who didn't outlive the first episode of "A Gifted Man" and is now in Sam Waterston's King Lear, playing The Fool (an early calling).
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