As you sit through the revival of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about love, lust, longing, loss and Labor Day in a Kansas burg, just try and keep your attention from wandering to the 1955 film adaptation that starred William Holden and Kim Novak.
Novak was Madge, an alluring small-town beauty, looking for something more – even if she wasn’t at all sure what that “more” constituted – than a dull, safe marriage. Holden was Hal, an uncouth, big-talking hunk of man doing odd jobs in the neighborhood.
In the movie’s most memorable scene, Holden and Novak, their hips moving in unison, danced on a dock that was lit by Japanese lanterns, he in shirtsleeves, his hair perfectly tousled, she in a tight, low-cut, swirly skirted blush pink dress, Picnic's lovely evocative theme playing in the background. Not to put too fine a point on it, this was a master class in sex education.
Alas, there’s no such magic and moon glow in the 60th anniversary production directed by Sam Gold.
The beefcake being served at this Picnic is Sebastian Stan. He’s Hal Carter, a handsome muscular drifter who’s doing chores for the elderly Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn) on an end-of-summer day. But it isn’t just the sun that’s hot for Hal’s visibly sweat-slicked body. Mrs. Potts and her young neighbors across the yard, sisters Millie (Madeleine Martin) and Madge Owens (Maggie Grace), take due be-still-my-heart note, as does Rosemary Sydney (Elizabeth Marvel), the schoolteacher who boards at the Owens’ house and who, up tp now, has made due with the tepid attention of her beau Howard ( the wonderful Reed Birney)
Millie and Madge’s mother Flo (Mare Winningham, spot on) also has a strong reaction: strong disapproval and distrust of the stranger in her midst. As a single mother with her husband long gone from the scene, perhaps she knows all too well how a certain kind of man can come, see, conquer and leave you flat. She’s got a different future in mind for her lovely daughter, one that includes marriage to the son of the local bigwig. “Madge, a pretty girl doesn’t have very long – just a few years when she’s the equal of kings,” she says by way of warning and, undoubtedly, self-recrimination. Oh, these young people today. As if they’re going to listen to mom.
Inge’s play takes place over the course of a day where the inconsequential domestic prepping for the town’s big end-of-summer event are juxtaposed – thanks to Hal – with the upending of several lives.
Therein lies the problem: Stan can flex his sweaty pecs ‘til the cows come home; there’s nothing about his self-conscious “I’m too sexy for my undershirt” performance to make credible the havoc he wreaks.
But this Picnic has a much bigger dilemma: the utter lack of chemistry between Stan and Grace. By rights, their characters’ passion is what ignites the play. It brings to the surface that raging desperation of Rosemary, the spinster teacher, the adolescent yearning of the tomboyish Millie and the complicated memories of Flo Owens. Without it, Picnic is just cold fried chicken.