The Subject Was Roses by Frank Gilroy
– Los Angeles Theater Review
THE SUBJECT IS ACTING
by Harvey Perr
published February 28, 2010
The Subject Was Roses
now playing in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum
through March 20
The Clearys are not the Lomans or the Tyrones or the Bergers or the Wingfields; they do not belong to the hierarchy
of families who have given American dramatic literature its greatest plays. There may be kitchens in the great plays, but the difference
between art and genre is that art transcends its origins and genre stays fixed to its immediate environment. The Clearys belong to the
world of joyless kitchen-sink realism, a form that had already seen better days even when the play in which their lives are depicted –
The Subject Was Roses – was first produced in 1964. If one is to revive the play, surely there
must be a way to find some fresh blood coursing through its veins, something that, at its heart, still speaks to us. But the only thing
about this kind of realism that still clings to the American theater is naturalism, the acting style of most of the best American actors.
So it is no surprise that the raison d’etre of the current revival at the Mark Taper Forum of
Frank Gilroy’s play is that Martin Sheen, who played the son in the original production, having grown forty-five years older, would want to
play the father, a part made memorable by the late Jack Albertson.
If you hear the faint roll of drums in the distance, it is not for Mr. Sheen. It is
for those of us who have actually seen the original productions of most contemporary revivals and have become a bit uncertain as to whether
we are attending a revival or visiting a cemetery each time we step into a theater. When a revival finds a new pulse, it is we who are
revived as well as the play in question. But when it doesn’t, we can’t help but ask, "Why?"
Simply put, there is nothing that is new or startling discovered in the play itself. It is not that it’s badly done
– there is a firm argument in its favor that it’s surprisingly well done – but that it is, at best, an exercise in the art of acting. If
that’s okay with you, then a trip to the theater is mandatory. If you want more, then this story of a young man coming home from World War
II in 1946 to confront parents who clearly haven’t connected to each other for years smacks of stuff much less interesting than what is
available on your television screen.
As for the acting, the focus, of course, is on Sheen who has found, in his character, a cock-of-the-walk strut and,
at the same time, a lack of real personal confidence which defines John Cleary. But Sheen, who was an emotionally vibrant Timmy Cleary,
also seems removed, as if he were estranged not just from his wife and son, but from the two actors playing them. This leaves Frances
Conroy and Brian Geraghty stranded for the most part on a desert island that looks remarkably like a kitchen and a living room. Somewhere,
towards the end of the play, Conroy and Geraghty finally relax and the scene between them is not merely transcendent but it makes clear
that Neil Pepe’s direction has been subtly moving toward this moment, and everything comes into place. Geraghty is all loose limbs and
jangly nerves and goofy charm, like a boy becoming a man before your eyes.
But it is Conroy, tight-mouthed, her voice girlishly high-pitched, her body rigid
with anticipation, who provides the evening’s best performance. Her Nettie Cleary is not different from other Netties – the play is too
restrictively written to move too far outside the confines of her character – but, as a performance, it is revelatory, and the closest thing
to greatness achieved in this production. When she returns from her day away from home, having run away with $50 in change, there is a
wryness in her eyes that bespeaks long-harbored private secrets which will never be revealed and there is a truth in that which the best
actors find not in the text of a play, but in the subtext. In Conroy, this revival finds an actor who can make thrilling an experience that
is primarily about the quality of acting.
In the last minutes of the play, the banter between the protagonists sounds
suspiciously like sitcom-speak. One can’t help but wonder if that is what kitchen-sink realism has led to? Or is it just another sign of the
limitations of The Subject Was Roses?
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com