Man and Boy: Theater Review

NEW YORK – Roundabout Theatre Company honors the centennial of English playwright Terence Rattigan with its Broadway revival of Man and Boy, but this 1963 drama about the downfall of a mighty financier has become timely for other reasons in the age of Bernie Madoff. It also furnishes Frank Langella with another crooked power broker to serve as a companion piece to his role as the disgraced U.S. president in Frost/Nixon.

All three of those reasons on paper might seem like sound justification for revisiting this minor entry from Rattigan’s late career, after the emergence of Britain’s Angry Young Men playwrights had rendered his work démodé. But they don’t disguise the fact that this is a second-rate play.

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Despite its uncanny topicality and juiciness as a star vehicle, the dramatic heft of Man and Boy is diminished by the emotional hollowness at its core. Throwing together a Machiavellian father who views love as a disposable inconvenience with a son who both worships and detests him should make for a combustible mix. But while director Maria Aitken and her accomplished cast hit their marks, the play has no teeth.

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Set in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, it centers on imperious Romanian industrialist Gregor Antonescu (Langella), who has amassed vast wealth while also being credited as the economic savior of post-war Europe. But when a planned merger of one of his companies with American Electric falls apart, panic-selling at stock exchanges around the globe threatens to crush his empire. Buying time while being pursued by the financial press and angry shareholders, G.A., as he is known, hides out in the Greenwich Village basement apartment of his estranged Socialist son, who goes by the name Basil Anthony (Adam Driver).

Following a sluggish opening scene between Basil and his actress girlfriend (Virginia Kull), things grow more intriguing as Gregor’s austere right-hand man (Michael Siberry) arrives to survey the place. But this is all a mere warm-up for G.A.’s entrance. A supreme puppet-master, he art-directs a quick makeover of the apartment and Basil’s wardrobe before a clandestine meeting with American Electric chief Mark Herries (Zach Grenier).

Making mincemeat of Herries’ accountant (Brian Hutchison) and his supposed evidence of inflated assets on the Antonescu books, G.A. plans to salvage the merger by shifting capital from a charitable foundation run by his second wife (Francesca Faridany), a former secretary for whom he bought the title of Countess. As an extra incentive, he slyly signals his awareness of Herries’ closet homosexuality, allowing him to believe Basil is his own lover, while pimping out his unwitting son to the salivating chump.

This plot point might have packed some sizzle in the early ‘60s, particularly given that Rattigan was gay and such references in his plays were generally more coded. But it now seems absurd to suggest that any corporation head could be distracted from a $6 million shortfall by the promise of some slap and tickle.

It’s when Gregor’s fiscal sleight of hand catches up with him that the play’s contemporary relevance clangs like a bell, as the first of what threatens to be a series of international banks takes a closer look at his fraudulent transactions.

Rattigan’s mastery of structure and sophisticated dialogue is undeniable, even if he does at times veer into grandiosity. (“I will take any risk… but not the risk of being so close to the pure in heart,” says G.A. of his son. “Love is a commodity I can’t afford.”) But the play is mechanical and cold. At least in this production, it fails to access the pathos beneath Gregor’s ruthless manipulation, or to invite empathy for the conflicted desperation of misused Basil, to whom his father ascribes the unforgivable flaw of being soft.

There are pleasures in the measured showiness of Langella’s performance, all ice-cool calculation and withering condescension, with never a word or gesture that’s not carefully weighed for some desired effect. Driver also does his part to keep the drama engrossing. While he undersells Basil’s borderline alcoholism, the actor conveys the agony of a self-doubting young man who has spent his life craving the love of an overbearing patriarch, at the same time recoiling from his father’s personal ethos.

Among the supporting players, Grenier is deliciously oily, while Siberry walks a shrewd line between toadyism and arrogance, his self-serving character’s loyalty evaporating without remorse at the opportune moment.

Having directed a generally well-received West End revival of this play in 2005 with David Suchet as Antonescu, Aitken is perhaps too trusting of the material, which has been shorn here of roughly a half-hour. She pulls together a physically sharp production on a detailed set by Derek McLane that evokes bohemian, pre-gentrified Village living, right down to the rust-stained ceilings. But for a play that ends with one character condemned and another presumably scarred for life, it’s a curiously bloodless affair that leaves little aftertaste.

Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (Through Nov. 27)
Cast: Frank Langella, Adam Driver, Francesca Faridany, Zach Grenier, Brian Hutchison, Virginia Kull, Michael Siberry
Playwright: Terence Rattigan
Director: Maria Aitken
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Music/Sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company