Frank Langella is one of America’s (make that the world’s) finest actors. His appearance in just about anything, whether it is on stage or in film, places an added value on it. His recent award-winning performance as Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” only reconfirmed his place as an actor for all seasons (Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”) whose range (from a vampire in “Dracula” to a lizard in “Seascape”) is as formidable as it is adventurous. As unscrupulous international financial finagler Gregor Antonescu in British playwright Terence Rattigans’s 1963 play, he proves that he can also be a fresh ham in an old turkey.
But we must make allowances for whatever attention-getting, character-embellishing resources Langella can muster to keep us involved in either his character’s heinous, unethical, and immoral shenanigans or in the largely incredulous plot of this not very good play. While golden-age film star Charles Boyer failed to make Antonescu a character worth savoring when the play appeared on Broadway (it closed after 54 performances), a year after its London premiere Langella is dispensing enough grand-eloquent virtuosity and venomously delivered vitriol in his performance to make us feel that our time in the theater is not totally misspent.
It is admirable that the relatively prolific Rattigan (1911-1977) continues to have a rather devoted base of admirers, many of whom consider “Separate Tables” (1954), “The Deep Blue Sea” (1952), “The Browning Version” (1948), and “The Winslow Boy” (1946) as the epitome of the “well-made” play. Let it be so.
What will make “Man and Boy” interesting to Broadway audiences, as it did last year to London audiences in the revival starring David Suchet, is the play’s remarkably unsurprising topicality, relevance, and timeliness in light of the financial skullduggery that has disrupted and distressed the economy on an international scale. It is easy to see the fascination that this play might have for producers and indeed for a star like Langella. Who would not be fascinated by an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer who is able to manipulate, maneuver, and manage multi-national business transactions, sales, and takeovers for his own gain? And who would not be impressed by the way Langella plays him as a posturing, sneering, condescending amoralist?
Those familiar with investment and economic history, or more likely watches TV or reads the news, will undoubtedly see not only see similarities between Antonescu’s machinations and Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, but also possibly recall the scandal surrounding Swedish industrialist Ivar Kreuger who committed suicide when a number of his global business ventures collapsed, some due to questionable financing arrangements during the Great Depression.
The play, were it not for the much too oddly odious contrivances that derail the play, has just enough to say about the world of business and finance today as it apparently did in 1934 when the play is set. The primary plot contrivance has to do with the love/hate relationship that Romanian-born/based Gregor has with his estranged adult son, Basil (Adam Driver). Unwilling and unable to accept his father’s corrupt lifestyle among more personal conflicts, Basil severs all family ties with his father and has taken up socialism and piano-playing as well as residence in a Greenwich Village basement apartment.
Up to the point where the play begins, Gregor has pretended to the world that his son is dead. Repulsed by his father’s lack of morality and business ethics, Basil has kept his family history a secret from his actress girlfriend, Carol (Virginia Kull). That he has managed to keep his back story or any family ties a secret from the woman he has been seriously involved with for the past six months is not very plausible. What makes less sense is the sudden appearance of his father accompanied by his personal business advisor, Sven Johnson (Michael Siberry), asking Basil for temporary asylum while he is being hounded by the press and subpoenaed by the FBI.
Also on the q.t., Gregor has invited a utilities company president, Mark Herries (Zach Grenier), to the apartment where he hopes to outwit, outsmart, and outflank him in a desperate, last-minute maneuver to save a disintegrating merger, one that he hopes to salvage even as his empire is crumbling. The play stumbles into even more incredulous territory as Gregor in desperation sets up the unaware Basil as sexual bait in order to close a deal with Mark, a wary but also easily duped homosexual.
Also thrown into the mix is Herries’ nervous and defensive accountant, David Beeston (Brian Hutchinson), who, nevertheless, has the numbers to prove that Gregor has cooked the books. Also making more of a fashion than dramatic statement is Gregor’s second wife — Basil’s stepmother — the Countess Antonescu, as played by Francesca Faridany in a manner as if to validate the lack of nobility in the family tree. And that atrocious cape and dress that the ordinarily wonderful costume designer Martin Pakledinaz’s has her wear should also be subpoenaed.
Under Maria Aitken’s direction (she also directed the London production) the cast in support of the sublime Langella perform with melodramatic aplomb and certainly have no trouble upstaging one another in turn within the evocatively dumpy set designed by Derek McLane. Maybe this isn’t top-drawer Rattigan, but who cares when it is top-drawer Langella. **
“Man and Boy,” through Sunday, November 27, Roundabout Theater at American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. $67.50 to $117.50. 866-276-4887.