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NEW YORK – While Terence Rattigan’s plays gathered dust for decades after being swept aside by the kitchen-sink realists of the 1950s and ‘60s, the old-fashioned structural virtues and tremulously submerged depth of feeling in the British dramatist’s work have drawn renewed appreciation in recent years. Fresh fuel for that rediscovery is supplied in Lindsay Posner’s affecting revival of The Winslow Boy. The 1946 drama follows a father’s tenacious quest to prove the innocence of his 14-year-old son, a Royal Navy cadet accused of theft. But as is often the case with Rattigan, plot becomes secondary to passions cloaked in upper middle-class reserve.
Directed for the screen by Anthony Asquith in 1948, and again by David Mamet in 1999, the play was last seen on Broadway 65 years ago. It’s a slow starter, and indeed its unhurried four acts might seem to lack economy for contemporary audiences. But in a production as expertly judged and performed as this one, there’s real pleasure in settling into the plush upholstery to savor the nuances of character, the subtle humor and fine shadings of the drama’s consideration of justice and honor.
Weighing individual right against government might, the play’s most striking aspect perhaps is Rattigan’s audaciousness in choosing to confine what’s essentially a courtroom drama to the drawing room, thereby shifting its focus from the legal battle to the heightened emotions that it stirs.
Staged earlier this year at London’s Old Vic, the production has been imported by Roundabout Theatre Company and recast for Broadway, providing plum roles for Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Roger Rees, in particularly brilliant form. In a casting choice that’s far from obvious, Alessandro Nivola proves highly effective in the key role of a powerful, vainglorious lawyer whose unexpressed feelings for the cadet’s sister churn the poignant undercurrents of the conclusion. As the principled young woman who shares that unspoken mutual attraction, Charlotte Parry is no less riveting.
Inspired by an actual incident, the play is set during the two years leading up to World War I, in the Winslow family home in South Kensington, wrapped in unostentatious elegance and muted green William Morris wallpaper by designer Peter McKintosh.
When young Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford) is expelled from the prestigious Royal Naval Academy at Osborne, allegedly for stealing a five-shilling postal order, it takes his father Arthur (Rees) just one direct question to ascertain to his satisfaction the boy’s innocence. But challenging the Admiralty’s decision proves complicated given that the institution comes under Crown jurisdiction and cannot be sued without government consent.
A retired banker, Arthur puts all of his resources into a dogged effort to clear his son’s name and the stain on his family. He hires aloof barrister Sir Robert Morton (Nivola), whose involvement pushes the issue into the national public and political debate forum. Ronnie’s progressive older sister Catherine (Parry) distrusts Sir Robert, who is antagonistic to her own cause of women’s suffrage; she suspects his willingness to attack the government on her father’s behalf is driven by his love of the spotlight. This “fine old rumpus,” to quote the Winslows’ parlor maid (Henny Russell), is dismissed by many as a waste of Parliament’s time, while others see it as an important matter of civil liberty.
As the case stretches on, draining the family’s finances, Arthur’s dutiful wife Grace (Mastrantonio) struggles to keep the household running and to remain silent in the face of her husband’s stubbornness. Their other son Dickie (Zachary Booth) is a lightweight forced to drop out of Oxford and take a bank job, while Catherine’s engagement is jeopardized under pressure from the Army Colonel father of her fiancé (Chandler Williams).
Ronnie’s presumed innocence becomes an entirely secondary plot consideration, and the playwright’s sharp sense of irony is evident in the boy’s increasing obliviousness to the uproar surrounding him. Perhaps Rattigan’s cleverest stroke is having nobody but the family servants present to hear the verdict when it finally comes. That droll anticlimax segues to an exquisitely gauged final exchange between Sir Robert and Catherine, its withheld declarations lingering after the final curtain. Watching these scenes performed with such intelligence is a welcome reminder of the rewards of the classic well-made play.
“Emotions muddy the issue,” insists the lawyer near the conclusion, instead advocating “cold, clear logic.” But Rattigan’s skill as a dramatist lies in his finesse at exposing the roiling sentiments lurking beneath stiff-upper-lip British composure and propriety. Reticence may be a fundamental characteristic of his plays, but whether the figures onstage here articulate their feelings or not, their devotion, their sacrifice and the convictions that guide them make The Winslow Boy unexpectedly moving.
All five principals do unimpeachable work. Mastrantonio’s sweetly doting matriarch is the drama’s chief source of warmth, and Parry’s whip-smart, skeptical Catherine its moral center. But Rees’ Arthur is the heart of the production. Tempering his character’s starchy authoritarian manner with a dash of John Cleese-ish eccentricity, the actor has flawless timing, sniffing out humor in the oddest places. His physical transformation from an arthritic but determinedly dignified man walking with a cane to one doubled over in agony, enfeebled and ready to admit defeat, is enormously touching.
Nivola is excellent at providing guarded glimpses of the yearning beneath Sir Robert’s self-important public performance mode. And there’s also lovely work from Michael Cumpsty as the Winslows’ dull, dependable solicitor, whose unrequited affections for Catherine have become a benign family joke.
Roundabout’s last Broadway stab at Rattigan was Man and Boy, a 1963 play that has aged poorly. But classy productions like this one – not to mention Terence Davies’ haunting 2011 film adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea – make a strong case for continuing to revisit the work of this estimable 20th century playwright.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through Dec. 1)
Cast: Roger Rees, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Cumpsty, Charlotte Parry, Zachary Booth, Spencer Davis Milford, Chandler Williams, Meredith Forlenza, Stephen Pilkington, Henny Russell
Director: Lindsay Posner
Playwright: Terence Rattigan
Set & costume designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting designer: David Lander
Music: Michael Bruce
Sound designer: Drew Levy
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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