In the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “Picnic,” William Inge’s classic play about love and lust in Kansas, Maggie Grace stars — alongside actor Sebastian Stan’s abdominal muscles — as the beautiful Madge. In the role of Hal Carter, the drifter who brings a whole new kind of heat to a sweltering small town, Stan struts about the stage, usually with a bare chest and an attitude that suggests no intention of reminding anyone where his eyes are, but his revealing costumes cause the production to border on pornographic at times.
While it may seem in poor taste to discuss an actor’s appearance as opposed to his talent, Inge’s play functions on a level concerned with this kind of skin-deep analysis. The story centers on Madge, a blonde who has never been anything more than a great pair of legs. Utterly unfulfilled in her relationship with a sweet, clean-cut rich boy in town, Madge inevitably falls for Hal. She finds a kindred spirit in the damaged man, who has never been valued for anything but his torso.
It is difficult to feel for Madge, as she whines about wishing people could see something more than a pretty face. Any kind of deeper layer seems highly unlikely in a character who spends all of her time sunbathing and putting on make-up. Her immaturity may be appropriate, but it’s far from sympathetic. It isn’t until we hear from Reed Birney’s Howard that we begin to feel for Madge. His greasy declaration that God would only make something so beautiful for one reason, and that “it’s about time someone showed her what it was,” is enough to make every woman in the audience want to walk home with her arms crossed and her head down.
Sam Gold’s direction of the play creates a delicious sense of voyeurism that melds seamlessly with the themes of the show. The actors perform without microphones and without any acknowledgment of an audience. They often disappear inside the house on the stage, where the audience only catches glimpses of them through the windows, and enjoys a slightly muffled delivery of their lines. While many new wave performances come crashing through the fourth wall, this production keeps it firmly in place, giving spectators the feeling that they are spying on their neighbors, as opposed to watching a show. “Picnic” is engrossing in its naturalism.
Mare Winningham, of ’80s film “Brat Pack” fame, plays Flo Owens, mother to Madge and to her smart-but-dowdy younger sister Millie. Flo operates with a kind of sincerity that suggests her feelings toward her daughters are the only source of real love that exists in the show. Everyone else is motivated by either lust or desperation. Winningham’s dialogue with the ever-endearing Ellen Burstyn, who plays the Owens’ neighbor, brings the show’s final scene to a bleak and poignant close.
“Picnic” is playing at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St., through Feb. 24.
A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 28 print edition. Olivia George is theater/books editor. Email her at [email protected]