`Picnic' Traces Longings and Loneliness in a Small Town

PICNIC Drama by William Inge. Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Criterion Center.

REMARKABLY, William Inge's classic, ``Picnic,'' which won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play when it was first produced, has never had a Broadway revival. The Roundabout Theatre Company has rectified this situation.

``Picnic,'' which is better known for the film version with William Holden, Kim Novak, and Rosalind Russell, was written in the early 1950s. In the author's note, however, Inge admits that the events of the play, while they could happen anytime, have a sleepy quality that comes from an earlier time, probably the '30s. Now, of course, the play seems quaint, almost archaic in its depiction of small-town life and the relationships between men and women. But in its chronicling of repressed longing and emotional desperation, it is utterly timeless.

The play details the turn of events that occur when a handsome drifter, Hal Carter (played by Kyle Chandler, late of TV's ``Homefront'') shows up in a small town in Kansas looking for a job. Hired by elderly Helen Potts (Anne Pitoniak) to do some work in her yard, he immediately removes his shirt, which doesn't escape the notice of her neighbors, Flo (Polly Holliday) and her two daughters, Madge (Ashley Judd) and young Millie (Angela Goethals). Flo is annoyed by the imperious young man, but Madge, who is going steady with the solid, respectable Alan (Tate Donovan), is intrigued.

Hal is the kind of smooth-talking huckster who is aware of his affect on women and is not above trying to exploit it. He also plays loose with the truth, as Alan, who is an old college buddy, well knows. Alan is still willing to help his friend, and he is unaware of the growing attraction between him and Madge. But he learns soon enough when the pair run off together rather than attend the town picnic.

Meanwhile, Rosemary (Debra Monk), the spinster schoolteacher, is also attracted to Hal, but her desire is expressed through anger. In frustration, Rosemary begs her boyfriend, Howard (Larry Bryggman), to marry her. In the most emotional scene of the play, Howard is so moved by the nakedness of her desperation that he succumbs, only to realize later what he has done.

For the play to fully succeed, the actors depicting the young protagonists have to be magnetic, and here both Judd and Chandler fall short. Although both are extraordinarily attractive, Chandler lacks charisma, and plays the character as more of a headstrong kid than someone who is cockily aware of his appeal. Judd, who was radiant in the film ``Ruby in Paradise,'' is also beautiful and appealing here, but she doesn't yet have the stage presence to carry a Broadway show.

The slack is more than taken up by Monk and Bryggman, who offer wonderfully vibrant and nuanced performances that are both funny and powerfully moving. These are veteran actors who have been doing quality work on New York stages for years, and here they absolutely shine.

Director Scott Ellis demonstrates that he is skillful in drawing out the emotional nuances of a dramatic play. It's a pleasure to see a less-than-new work, which in lesser hands might be treated with condescension, brought back to life with loving care.

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