Any time a play is revived, with the exception of dramatic literature that over the years has achieved the status of a classic, we can consider some of the more probable and reasonable reasons for its return. One may be that the play is built on a theme that is easily recognized for its universality; that is understood and appreciated in terms larger than even the story itself. Another is that the play’s story also creates, through the action, dialogue, and behavior of its characters, a timeless reality that we can see is as relevant and pertinent today as it was when it was first done.
All this is to say that Frank D. Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning 1964 drama “The Subject was Roses” is being revived by the George Street Playhouse mainly because, as the theater’s artistic director David Saint stated on opening night, he has always had a fondness for it and has always wanted to do it. I suspect that’s reason enough. It can’t be denied that Gilroy’s play has a kind of built in honesty and integrity that keeps it from being too conspicuously dated. But dated it is, in both its dramatic effectiveness and its content.
The 1968 film version (which I watched again recently), despite some wonderful performances by Jack Albertson, Martin Sheen (recreating their stage roles), and Patricia Neal, has an ingrained artificiality, a quality that I can now presume to be inherent in the play. However, the George Street production, under the direction of Michael Mastro, is probably as fine an accomplishment as an audience could expect.
Although Mastro is more widely known as an actor, particularly for his memorably eccentric performances at George Street in “The Sunshine Boys,” “The Pillowman,” and “Inspecting Carol,” his debut at this theater as a director validates the extension of his talent. He is also lucky to have three fine actors — Lee Sellars, Chris Wendelken, and Stephanie Zimbalist — under his guidance. As his approach appears confined to the basic needs of this “kitchen sink and sofa” drama, we could say there are no missteps from beginning to end.
Tenderly realistic with barely a trace of contrivance “The Subject Was Roses” focuses on the tensions and misunderstandings that arise among the three members of the Cleary clan. Timmy (Wendelken,) a 21-year-old soldier, has returned to his parents’ Bronx apartment in 1946. Things, as you might expect, progress steadily from welcoming to woebegone before they are resolved. Essentially, this is one of those morning-after-the-night-before plays in which the playwright reveals the schisms that prevent the co-existence of three basically decent, but incompatible, members of one family. As the play points out, it takes more than a token bouquet of roses to heal long-standing hurts.
The Clearys have never been a harmonious team, but over the course of two days they are forced to face the changes in their relationship to one another and learn to respect each other — flaws and all. That their flaws don’t even come close to defining what we now consider aspects of a dysfunctional family are almost the play’s saving grace. Perhaps this play is a trifle naive for modern audiences, yet the 48 hours covered, in which mother and son, father and son, and husband and wife all have a go at each other, vibrates with three portrayals that unquestionably convey the essential and underlying dignity of the family unit and of the human spirit.
While many in the audience will likely remember Zimbalist as Laura Holt in the successful television series “Remington Steele” (1982 to 1987), it is good to see her adding George Street Playhouse to her numerous regional stage appearances. It doesn’t take us long to see and understand the source of Nettie’s deep affection for her son and also the need she has to fearlessly express it. She also makes Nettie’s mood swings palpable as she is dragged back into the reality of her unhappy marriage. This is all expressed simply and powerfully in Zimbalist’s disquietingly impassioned performance. There were moments for me (because of a subtle resemblance) that I felt as if I was watching the great, late Colleen Dewhurst burn the waffles; she also gets to burn up the floor dancing the polka with her son, Timmy.
Wendelken is a fine young talent whose acting credits will assuredly increase following this impressive debut here as Timmy. He makes him not only credible as a nervous, insecure, and conflicted victim of his parents’ loveless marriage but also as a very decent young man who is also willing to sacrifice himself as a mediator.
It never ceases to amaze me how a familiar play with just a few actors can be shifted slightly in its orbit by one performance that is so resolutely on target, so impeccably detailed, and so refreshingly feisty that it makes the entire play resonate anew. This is what Sellars does with the role of John, the intolerably argumentative and pathetically defensive father who is not able to reconcile his own failure with the divisiveness in his family. Sellars, who was comically sinister as the good cop in “The Pillowman” at George Street, and played Officer Krupke in the recent Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” essentially holds and tightens the reins on a drama that makes clear that, as Timmy puts it quite succinctly, “We are just going around in circles.”
All the production elements are first rate. Michael Schweikardt’s mid-’40s middle class Bronx apartment setting, artistically illuminated by lighting designer Christopher J. Bailey — the kitchen with its familiar (to some of us) appliances, the living room with its well-worn furnishings, and the Welcome Home Timmy banner — add to the reality, as do Esther Arroyo’s period-perfect frocks for Zimbalist.
“The Subject Was Roses,” through Sunday, March 6, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org