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Spending an evening in the company of Frank Gilroy’s Pulitzer-winning 1964 family drama “The Subject Was Roses” is a little like visiting a museum that once held fond memories. Objectively, everything is just as you remember it, but exhibits that once seemed vital and even poignant have mysteriously lost much of their luster, not to mention their life.
Gilroy’s play is about a 21-year-old veteran, Timmy (“The Hurt Locker’s” Brian Geraghty), who returns to his Irish Catholic home in the West Bronx after World War II only to find that his parent’s joyless marriage has frayed perilously close to the point of no return. The father, John (Martin Sheen), snipes at and ignores the mother, Nettie (Frances Conroy), who is filled with resentment; both bristle with barely disguised indignation.
Worse, almost immediately Timmy is pressured into playing old childhood roles and assuming familiar alliances that no longer seem relevant. Clearly, he’d like to be a man, if only Mom and Pop would let him.
The play offers little breathing room in its tight focus on Timmy’ predicament — should he continue to take, as he always has, his mother’s side? How does he really feel about his difficult father? Should he take any side at all? What can be done to improve the situation?
The questions are valid, but in retrospect, Gilroy’s treatment of them seems less probing than remembered and the characters less sympathetic. Reduced to its bare essentials, “Roses” is a string of sentimental cliches preserved in the amber of good intentions. There’s the I-made-your-favorite-breakfast scene between Mom and Timmy; the let’s-go-to-the-ballgame scene between Dad and Timmy; the living room-dance with Mom; the “I love you, Pop”; the slammed door, the slap, the all-too-tidy ending. With its carefully crafted but predictable dramaturgy, the play would make a nice fit on your TV screen.
Part of the problem is the acting, which lacks the kind of bite a play this eager to please needs more than most. Jack Albertson provided the bite in the original Broadway production and the film that followed four years later, in both of which Sheen played the son. As the father, Sheen skates the surface of the character’s pain — the rawness and roughness are missing — and the result is an unconvincing slickness.
Conroy’s thin, high-pitched, childlike voice as well as her withholding attitude are too one-note not to become irritating. Geraghty has a shy skittishness about him that helps bring Timmy to life, though the character is the least interesting of the three.
Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles (Through March 21)
Cast: Martin Sheen, Frances Conroy, Brian Geraghty
Playwright: Frank D. Gilroy
Director: Neil Pepe
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Lighting designer: Rui Rita
Costume designer: Laura Bauer
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