By Joseph Hurley
THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, by Frank D. Gilroy. Directed by David Fuller. Starring Craig Smith, Elise Stone and Christopher Black. The Jean Cocteau Repertory Bowerie Lane Theatre. In rotating rep through May.
On the face of it, the idea of reviving Frank D. Gilroy’s poignant family drama "The Subject Was Roses" might have seemed just a little bit on the risky side.
The deceptively simple-seeming, three-character play achieved the theatrical equivalent of a hat trick in ice hockey, which is to say that, when it debuted late in the 1963-64 Broadway season, it swept up the three most significant prizes available, the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Tony, and the Pulitzer.
But that was 37 years ago, and time might all too easily have wreaked havoc with an intensely personal, deeply revealing work in which an Irish-American boy from the Bronx, writing in 1960, recalled his return from World War II some 14 years earlier.
"The Subject Was Roses," in its way, stands as the theatrical equivalent of William Wyler’s great demobilization film classic of 1946, "The Best Years of Our Lives," and the good news about the Jean Cocteau Repertory’s new production of Gilroy’s fine play is that the writer’s earnest text comes shining through, its values intact in a production that understands and respects his intentions.
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Directed by the Cocteau Rep’s Producing Artistic Director, David Fuller, the 30-year-old company’s loving revival of the play, almost a textbook example of absolutely straightforward production, proves what a tough nut it is and what a resounding example of solid, enduring dramatic construction.
Fuller’s cast is made up of a trio of the company’s veterans, with Craig Smith in his 28th Cocteau season, Elise Stone in her 16th, and even Christopher Black, the play’s authorial surrogate, in his ninth year with the Rep. These are actors who have worked together often and intensely, and their familiarity with one another shows in everything they do, deepening the play’s impact and its resonance.
To state that these three actors are not especially charismatic, in and of themselves, is meant neither to insult them nor to diminish their value to Fuller’s production. To the contrary, their ordinariness gives them an unusual degree of credibility as a family unit.
"The Subject Was Roses" is generally thought of as the story of an embittered, working class Irish-American family and what ensues when the couple’s only son, Timothy Cleary, returns to his embattled parents and the modest Bronx apartment in which he was raised.
In fact, despite the fact that Nettie Cleary, the work’s sensitive, easily wounded mother, has often been played by Irish-American actresses, first Irene Dailey and then the late Maureen O’Sullivan, the character is actually a mix of German and Italian heritage, a point that was made clear in a later Gilroy play, the compelling but grossly unappreciated "Any Given Day," a Broadway failure of a decade ago that dealt with the mother’s complicated family in the days immediately before Timmy Cleary went into the Army.
The fact that the dark-featured, vulnerable-seeming Elise Stone is probably closer to the mark, both ethnically and emotionally, than anyone who has previously played Nettie, including the great Patricia Neal, for whom the 1968 film version served as a return to the screen after a devastating series of near-fatal aneurisms, helps the Cocteau Rep’s revival beyond measure.
The Broadway production, and the film that followed, made a star of Martin Sheen, the original Timmy, but nothing of the sort is likely to occur with Black, the plain-face young actor poised at the fulcrum of the strong new mounting of the play.
Craig Smith’s portrayal of John Cleary, the erratic, hard-drinking, sporadically charming father, frustrated by his wife’s frigidity, not to mention her fixation on her own father, who apparently spoiled her in her girlhood, is on the chilly side, and lacking in the easy Irish "charm" the character uses to balance the viciousness of his angry outbursts against his wife and son. Those needed, subtle tones will be achieved, almost certainly, with added playing.
Admirable as it is, the Cocteau’s production of playwright Gilroy’s somewhat neglected American classic does have its small flaws, a couple of which are puzzling.
When Nettie serves coffee, as she often does throughout the play, she does so with an odd pot large enough, it would seem, to service the kitchen of a hospital of a home for the elderly. And, a bit more disturbing, on the wall of Robert Klinglehoefer’s otherwise serviceable set, a huge reproduction of a photograph of the Clearys welcoming their son home, the same shot that adorns the production’s program, looms over the action, giving this solid staging of a bracingly realistic play an impressionistic slant.
Those slight cavils are aggressively minor, considering the overall excellence of Fuller’s new staging of Gilroy’s play.