Theater review: Life’s not always a ‘Picnic’

Hal (Sebastian Stan) turns life upside-down for Madge (Maggie Grace) in "Picnic," now playing through Feb. 24.

You might say that “Picnic,” William Inge’s 1953 drama in which nascent love trumps prim practicality, waxes somewhat sentimental — but the stunning production at the American Airlines Theatre is anything but. Deftly designed, meticulously lit and cast to perfection, its passions are writ large and felt deep; they’re often wrenching, but without mawkish accoutrements. Its only excess — Sebastian Stan’s buff torso seems more oiled than sweat-drenched — is soon forgiven as the audience joins the sex-starved spinsters onstage in gaping at his incredibly ripped physique.

Stan plays Hal, a down-on-his-luck drifter who’s doing yard work for Mrs. Potts (Ellen Burstyn), neighbor to Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) and her daughters Madge (Maggie Grace) and Millie (Madeleine Martin). He’s come to their small Kansas town seeking help from his old college roommate, Alan (Ben Rappaport), who is also Madge’s boyfriend. But Madge proves a more compelling source of succor. She and Hal skip the Labor Day picnic, to the dismay of flinty Flo and smitten Alan. Meanwhile the Owens’ boarder, Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel), a borderline old maid, decides it’s time to put the screws to her boyfriend Howard (Reed Birney): She desperately begs him to marry her.   

Director Sam Gold and his amazing cast make the ordinary seem luminous. The play’s exploration of life’s daily disappointments and its all-too-rare triumphs is intimate and matter-of-fact, seasoned with broad (and not-so-broad) humor and grand passion. Every cast member pulses with humanity, endowing Inge’s characters with vibrant life.

If you go

Through Feb. 24
American Airlines Theatre,
227 West 42nd Street,
$42-127, 212-719-1300


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