By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006
Everyone agrees that times have changed; no one agrees on how much they've changed, and the latter is the thing on which everything turns. It's thoughts like these that occur on a rainy December afternoon as you're gazing at Broadway's Royale Theatre, now known as the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, which in 1964 played host to a drama of quiet devastation, "The Subject Was Roses," and most recently was home to "Glengarry Glen Ross," a drama of very unquiet devastation. Frank D. Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Roses" (expletive count: 0) was one of 36 straight plays to open on Broadway during the 1964-65 season; half as many opened there in 2004-05, including the revival of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Glengarry" (expletive count: more than 100, and that's just the f-word).
By one measure, the distance from the Jacobs to the upcoming Kennedy Center revival of "The Subject Was Roses" is just four blocks. The rehearsal room is a small, spare space on the eighth floor of a building on Manhattan's West Side. Across the hall, Tyne Daly, John Slattery and Cynthia Nixon are rehearsing the Broadway-bound "Rabbit Hole," by David Lindsay-Abaire, a hot, young playwright with his eyes fixed firmly on the present.
But in here it is 1946, the boys are just back from World War II, and young Timmy Cleary (Steve Kazee), after 48 hours of conversation in the family's kitchen and living room but almost nothing else, will come to see that nothing about his family is what it seems. "Roses" is well observed and well made, the product of Gilroy's keen sense of the inner workings of family life. And the success of the play's revival, which begins Saturday, turns on how much that life has changed -- that is, how much the Eisenhower Theater audience will see themselves in this 1940s world, where arguments erupt over a son's abandonment of the family's Catholic faith and where women have to ask their husbands for money.
"Okay, let's begin," director Leonard Foglia says. His voice is quiet, reassuring. Bill Pullman, whose reputation once rested on Hollywood product but has grown steadily thanks to recent acclaimed stage work, is trading fake punches with Kazee. The jabs are meant to be a playful father-and-son thing, but the threat of real violence from Pullman's John Cleary soon becomes evident. The smile fades from Kazee's face, and the pair is transported from 1946 to a kind of timeless, Oedipal anywhere. A similar moment occurs later, when Judith Ivey, who plays Nettie, the Cleary family matriarch, dances with her son to the radio strains of "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." Ivey beams when he holds her close, an expression that Kazee's Timmy finds both endearing and pathetic. It's a painfully true exchange, one that will no doubt exist as long as sons stoke their mothers' idolatry and women in unhappy marriages seek surrogate husbands of their sons.
"My interest in theater really began in the '70s when American realism wasn't really in favor," Pullman says. "I really dreaded going into a play that had a toaster that worked. I just didn't want to see that." Now, however, the actor believes "that American realism is who we are. We have an obligation to do that better than any country in the world. . . . We'll let the Finns do the weird version, let the English do the Shakespeare set in 2025."
Few theatrical forms capture the tenor of the times better than realism, and therein lies the danger. Do plays such as "Roses" become obsolete when the tenor of the times changes?
"I was taken with how it seemed not to be dated, except in silly things like how much something costs," Ivey says. She is particularly struck by the drama's incisive depiction of a 25-year marriage "and all that entails. [In my own case] there are days when I realize I never actually look my husband in the face. I go right on with my business." It's one of the bittersweet legacies of long-term relationships and of actors who dare to re-create them.
"I remember the second or third day of rehearsal," Ivey continues. "Bill and I walked in, we didn't even say hello to each other. . . . It's very sad. People ask you about Bill Pullman and you say, 'I don't know [anything about him].' "
For his part, Pullman points to the drama's evocation of the grown child's eternal quest: to grasp the intricate logic of his parents' relationship. "There were all those things that were public," Pullman says, speaking of his own parents, "and then there was this private world that was all questioned. Did that really happen or didn't that really happen? Was that because of a good thing or a bad thing? All that stuff that hovers in a kind of anxious haze is what I really related to with the play."
Still, there's no denying that "The Subject Was Roses" is firmly anchored in a world widely considered to be gone forever. Despite its initial success, the play has never been revived on Broadway, and reviewers have generally been unkind to smaller productions. Gilroy's script, often attacked as outdated in both form and content, usually takes the lion's share of the blame, followed swiftly by the heathenish, fractured family lives we now allegedly lead.
But "The Subject Was Roses" has braved this storm before, it turns out. When the play arrived at the Royale in 1964, it sported three unknown actors, a director who had never directed a Broadway play, and advance ticket sales of -- $162. And, oh, yeah, one more thing: American realism was considered dead even then. But the public took no notice of such things, filling the Royale's seats night after night. "Roses" ran for two years, won the Tony Award for best play and spawned an Oscar-winning film.
"Realism has been defunct or at least dying, hasn't it?" wrote The New York Times -- in 1964. "Frank D. Gilroy seems not to have got the message. . . . He sticks to a form that Ibsen is reputed to have used up, and behold, he writes a forthright, affecting play."
The Subject Was Roses Kennedy Center 202-467-4600 Through Jan. 29