When in 1956 John Osborne's Look Back in Anger shook up the London theater--and much of the rest of the English-speaking drama circles as well--the bystander possibly shaken the most was Terence Rattigan, then arguably the country's leading playwright. Within what seemed like minutes, the urbane, dryly tough-minded Rattigan became the latest metaphorical baby thrown out with the metaphorical bathwater.
Rattigan's eclipse was so effective, it's taken several decades for producers to realize what had been foolishly discarded. Now slowly, tastemakers are rediscovering what Rattigan had to offer--more in England than stateside.
Maybe this side of the Atlantic, it's Todd Haimes at the Roundabout, who's twigged to Rattigan's value. Two years ago, he brought Maria Aitken across the sea to direct Frank Langella in Man and Boy. (David Suchet had just done the play in the West End under Aitken's direction.) Now Haimes has imported Lindsay Posner to guide Rattigan's highly successful 1946 work The Winslow Boy--as he did at London's Old Vic last season with Henry Goodman leading the cast.
So why waste any more time before declaring that what Rattigan advocates Haimes and Posner have worked out is one of the best productions on which the Roundabout has ever raised a curtain at the American Airlines Theatre? Which isn't to say there won't be those who turn their nose up at it for being that obsolete 20th-century creature in a 21st-century world: The Well-Made Play.
Oh, yes, here's a drawing room drama (set designer Peter McKintosh puts William Morris wallpaper up) taking place in 1912-14--or just before the First World War when at least one or two of the characters dallying here would be likely to perish. It's an atmosphere that, granted, fosters the kind of stiff-upper-lip behavior scorned by PBS's Masterpiece's detractors who may have quieted themselves since being seduced by Downton Abbey.
But, theater lovers, what's wrong with a well-made play when it's made as well as this one, which was something Rattigan knew how to do and repeatedly did? Certainly he does it with a story that's as they say, ripped from the headlines, albeit early 20th-century headlines concerning a schoolboy mistakenly accused of a crime that caught national interest. Think of it as a much less inflammatory version of France's Alfred Dreyfus case.
Arthur Winslow (Roger Rees) determines that he'll establish the innocence of his younger son Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford), who's been expelled from naval academy for stealing a five-shilling postal order and forging the rightful owner's signature.
Against huge odds--and as two years pass--the inflexible father demands emotional and budgetary sacrifices of his wife Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), his engaged daughter Catherine (Charlotte Parry), her father-dominated fiancé John Watherstone (Chandler Williams) but not so much of his Bunny-hugging banker son Dickie (Zachary Booth).
Much of the possibility for Ronnie's exoneration rests on the abilities of acclaimed but seemingly unemotional barrister Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), who may or may not have an actual emotional attraction to Charlotte. Also, frequently visiting the household with waning belief that Charlotte will accept his offer of marriage is self-effacing Desmond Curry (Michael Cumpsty).
Although this is indeed stiff-upper-lip England, the Winslow lips begin to tremble as Rattigan depicts them, and particularly the incipiently ill Arthur in an extensive battle that at one point is defined as differentiating justice from the absolute right thing to do. The stiff-upper-lip phrase "Let right be done" is repeated several times. Rattigan stalks his point by plotting circumstances where pursuing that right thing causes much ancillary suffering. Rattigan is asking whether Arthur's campaign is worth the cost--and even at his somewhat upbeat denouement, it's not clear he's chosen to supply an easy answer.
The Winslow Boy is a well-made play, yes, but it deals with a problem for which the solution is patently not well made. To allow the situation to unfold persuasively, Rattigan does some remarkable writing--taking care to give every character the chance to have at least one spotlighted center-stage moment. Those lucky enough to be handed multiple chances to shine are each of the Winslows, the suave Sir Robert, the conflicted John Watherstone and well meaning but unlovable Desmond Curry.
The scene-thieving definitely extends to longtime household retainer Violet (Henny Russell), but, okay, maybe not to interviewer Miss Barnes (Meredith Forlenza), who's on the premises for the purpose of interviewing Arthur Winslow, and photographer Fred (Stephen Pilkington), there to snap Arthur and Ronnie. Those two register nicely, all the same.
What's absolutely well-made about The Winslow Boy is that with all the crackling dialog handed around, the roles are God's gifts to actors. Maybe the first thing to say is that ensemble playing doesn't get much better than this, thanks to director Posner, McKintosh for his flattering period costumes and dialect coach Stephen Gabis.
But where to begin passing out individual laurels? Probably with Rees, who presents a stern Edwardian gentleman who isn't in the best of health when he first appears and whose resolve slowly takes its visible toll. When Rees impressed Manhattan audiences as Nicholas Nickleby a few decades ago, he was wonderful. He's been wonderful in various assignments ever since, but this may be his best outing since the initial one. Let's just say it is.
Nivola, seen less often on local stages, is smooth as a silk scarf throughout, but his heated grilling of young Ronnie is true theatrical fireworks (take that, Jimmy Porter), and Milford's responses as the besieged Ronnie are remarkable in a young actor. Mastrantonio's Grace is to the manner born. (When she played Tony Carbone's put-upon wife in a London View From the Bridge some years ago, she couldn't have been more different but was every bit as good.)
As a committed suffragette dealing with two declared suitors and, in Sir Robert, one perhaps undeclared, Parry is elegance striding. Cumpsty's Desmond Curry, so timid he has trouble raising his chin from its position almost lodged in his neck, makes reticence monumental.
Russell's late report, as Violet, on incidents at the court proceedings she attended is right up there with any breathless messenger's account in a Greek or Shakespearean item. Booth's cheerfulness brought low by one unfortunate reversal of his prospects delivers yet another in the play's many mood turns.
Welcome back, Terence Rattigan. All is forgotten, not that anything ever needed to be.