Newsday, April 22, 1994

"'Picnic' Hampered"
by Linda Winer

PICNIC: Drama by William Inge, directed by Scott Ellis. With Ashley Judd, Kyle Chandler, Angela Goethals, Tate Donovan, Debra Monk, Anne Pitoniak, Polly Holliday, Larry Bryggman, Audrie Neenan. Sets by Tony Walton, costumes by William Ivey Long, lights by Peter Kaczorowski, dance by Susan Stroman. Roundabout Theater Company, Broadway at 45th Street, Manhattan. Seen at Tuesday's press preview.

Of all the seriously celebrated playwrights from the '50s, William Inge may be the one whose legacy dropped most precipitously off the edge of the Earth. Roundabout Theater Company, which has had remarkable success recently with forgotten treasures, is trying to do it again with the first Broadway production of Inge's Pulitzer-Prize winning "Picnic" since it opened in 1953. Well, you can't win them all.

Most people know "Picnic" as the 1955 movie about the effects of a swig of liquor and William Holden's bare chest on Kim Novak and generations of horny womenfolk in small-town-ville, Kansas. Take away Holden. Then take away Novak. And that--except for some lovely performances in supporting roles--is pretty much that.

Scott Ellis, the musical specialist who brought "She Loves Me" back to life last summer, has had several good ideas for this unevenly cast, pleasant-enough revival. Most cleverly, he runs the three acts together into a single 100-minute sitting--and avoids interrupting the mild potboiler's modest momentum so we can't dwell on how little is at stake here.

Taking his cue from an early note from the playwright, Ellis also back-dates the action to the '30s, a time when a drifter was more likely to wander into a yard and be offered breakfast in exchange for work. Although we never feel the deep oppression of world economic crisis on these poor people, their central conflict--between lust and decency--does seem less limited and quaint at a longer distance.

Ashley Judd, youngest of the country-music Judd family in her Broadway debut is a beauty as Madge, just as Madge is supposed to be. Little sister Millie (the exuberantly gifted Angela Goethals) is the smart one, the one who will be able to get the scholarship to take her away from the boring town. Madge's only options involve working at the dime store, marrying the rich but merely nice Alan (Tate Donovan), and brushing her long red hair.

Then Hal (Kyle Chandler) drifts in without his shirt, and all bets for an innocent summer-evening picnic are off. For this to matter, however, Hal needs to be truly magnetic, Madge needs to be doing more than competently reading lines, and it would up the tension if Alan (a kid named Paul Newman originated the role) had some chemistry going for him too. None of this happens, or, at least, not enough to heat up the stage.

The rest of the cast has the mastery we miss in the three leads. Goethals, the teenager who helped make "The Good Times Are Killing Me" so memorable, brings all the subtle and histrionic agonies of adolescence to Millie--a star-making role for Kim Stanley on Broadway 41 years ago. Debra Monk has both wonderful bravado and pathos as the "old-maid schoolteacher," Larry Bryggman makes her gentleman caller both endearing and depressing, Anne Pitoniak knows exactly how to keep an old woman's yearnings from seeming ridiculous, and Polly Holliday makes a mother's concern more than fortune hunting.

Choreographer Susan Stroman makes the little dance scene both natural and dangerous. Tony Walton's backyard set is convincingly shabby but tidy. William Ivey Long, somehow, thought this respectable country girl would have Jean Harlow slip-dresses in the closet, but, mostly, things are as pat as the train whistle Inge uses with such tidy dramatic regularity.

Copyright 1994, Newsday Inc.

New York Voice, May 11, 1994

by Marjorie Gunner

Put on your Sunday clothes--"Picnic" and "Beauty and the Beast" are strewing rose petals and Spring huzzahs on the Great White Way. The lines are forming, bells are ringing. Tennessee Williams would be entranced. He was the Muse for the deep feeling playwright William Inge, who is being lovingly revived at the Roundabout in unquestionably their greatest season. Scott Ellis staged both "Picnic" and "She Loves Me." Both are must-sees.

The cast of "Picnic" is every bit as good as the original 1953 stage version, later filmed with Rosalind Russell. In this stirring revival, Anne Pitoniak plays Helen Potts, one of the small town lonely women sharing the same tacky backyard in Independence, Kansas. Their boredom suddenly sharpens focus when Helen hires a young muscular handyman to do odd jobs. Shirtless, he awakens juices long forgotten and excitement reserved for nothing more stirring than the picnic social about to transpire at sundown. Life changes utterly.

Pretty Madge Owens (a beautiful actress debuting) is on the verge of escaping from her Ma's tacky rooming house for the "better life" prosperous Alan offers. But the attraction between Madge (Ashley Judd) and Hal (Kyle Chandler) is instantaneous. No warning from Madge's mother, Flo, (grippingly played by Polly Holliday in her best interpretation to date) can forestall the difficult life she suffered. The marvelous Debra Monk plays the famous spinster teacher role with her customary ingenuity and broad humor. Her tipsy scene when she begs her reluctant beau to marry her, provoked by Madge and Hal as magnetism draws them to dance together, is pure theatre. Larry Bryggman as hesitant Howard is most amusing as he arrives the next morning. His intended refusal: "This is my busy season" is met with such happy uproar by the town gossips, even he visualizes himself as the groom....

Another production from the Roundabout to go down in history. What a season for them and some other acting companies. Bravo!