The Winslow Boy : Rattigan's Comfort Food in a Jaded Age

At a time when government seems more interested in self-aggrandizing political posturing than in the individuals it represents, it is a pleasure and comfort to revisit an old chestnut like Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy if only to spend an evening in the consoling belief that right will triumph in the end.

In a handsome and enjoyable Roundabout Theater revival that opened last night, Roger Rees delivers a sterling performance as the driven Arthur Winslow, father of the 13-year-old boy of the title who was expelled from the Royal Navy College, a military academy for young boys, under accusations he stole and cashed a classmate's five-shilling postal order.

Rattigan was a master craftsman of the well-made play, drawing-room dramas that focused on real and petty crises in the lives of Britain's upper middle class. He was a leading light in the West End and on Broadway until the 1950's when the Angry Young Man and kitchen-sink realism of John Osborne and others elbowed him to the wings. While there has been a revival of sorts of Rattigan's plays in recent years, including an adaptation of The Winslow Boy by David Mamet, an air of mannered stuffiness often lingers about them.

Yet under Lindsay Posner's astute direction, Rees and a fine cast in the Roundabout production, first staged at London's Old Vic, manage to inject an immediacy to this 1946 play that raises it to the level of real drama. Set in the years just before World War I and based on a true story, The Winslow Boy begs the question "What price, justice?" Or as the barrister who argues young Winslow's case observers, "Justice is easy; right is hard."

The struggle to absolve the boy from wrongful accusation drags on for nearly two years -- through an Admiralty inquiry that upholds the boy's guilt to a raucous debate in the House of Commons that denies him a court hearing and finally to a Petition of Right to the Crown that wins him a public trial by jury - Reese creates a vivid portrait of old stiff-upper-lip Edwardian rectitude.

The elder Winslow is so convinced of his son's innocence he is determined to prove it even at the cost of his own health -- Rees brilliantly progresses from limp to cane to wheelchair over the course of play -- his family's financial ruin, and social ostracism.

As with Shaw, another master of the well-made play, Rattigan dribbles out his story by the spoonful, creating suspense by withholding information. He can be wordy, but he also weaves in subplots and molds fully-developed characters to go with them.

There is, for example, the Winslow daughter, Kate, an active suffragette and model of the New Woman (Rattigan's nod to Shaw), whose engagement to a rather shallow and pompous ass is uncertain. And there is the older son, Dickie, who is more interested in his gramophone and the Bunny Hop (or Bunny Hug as it was known at the time) than his classes at Oxford.

Two of the production's show-stopping moments, however, come from the lawyers in the case. The estimable Michael Cumpsty, playing the aging cricketer who is also the Winslow family solicitor and who carries a long-smoldering flame for Kate, delivers a marriage proposal that is at once humorous and heart-breaking. And Alessandro Nivola, as the hot-shot barrister, is fearsome as he grills young Winslow before taking on the case.

Charlotte Parry and Zachary Booth ably play Kate and Dickie, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is good as Arthur's long-suffering wife. Peter McKintosh's sets and costumes carry the audience back to a time before the Great War changed everything. It has been over 65 years since "The Winslow Boy" was on Broadway, and it is welcome back.