“Picnic”: What the Critics Thought

“Picnic,”  the William Inge classic about a charismatic drifter in the American heartland, opened Sunday night at the American Airlines Theatre, for a limited engagement through Feb. 24.

Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play celebrates the one-dimensional allure of the superficial, as Hal (Sebastian Stan, the "Captain America" sidekick) sends women of all ages reeling and eventually falls for one himself, the fetching, but unsatisfied Madge Owens ("Lost's" Maggie Grace). “What good is it to be pretty?” Madge asks her mother, Flo, in one revealing exchange from the 1953 story. Comes her mom’s response: “Pretty things, like flowers and sunsets and rubies -- and pretty girls, too -- they’re like billboards telling us that life is good.”

The veteran ensemble includes Mare Winningham as beleaguered mom Flo, Reed Birney as a commitment-phobic middle-aged businessman and Ellen Burstyn, as an older neighbor who has held onto her wandering eye. 

In general, reviewers lauded the performances of the stage veterans, but felt there could have been more “sizzle” between the main protagonists. Here’s a sampling of what they said:

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: “The Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of William Inge’s ‘Picnic’ opened on Sunday night, starring an exceptionally well-developed torso. Of course the torso belongs to a person, the actor Sebastian Stan. But it has been given the kind of lavish individual attention that would seem to warrant above-the-title billing ... Mind you, it faces stiff competition from an exquisitely shaped pair of legs, the property of Maggie Grace, whose face ain’t so bad either.”

Michael Musto, The Village Voice: “... While Sebastian Stan has the glistening body for Hal -- and he gets to show it a lot -- his performance is too posturey, with the rages, petulance, and aspirations not emanating all that naturally. And while Maggie Grace is lovely as Madge, she doesn't carve a distinctive figure, and certainly not one who seems fated to run off with Hal and gamble with the rest of her life. ... So the play about dashed hopes colliding with awakened desires isn't nearly as electric as it could be, but it's still a vintage trip back to muddled 1950s morality and the poetic hopes that rose up in spite of it.”

Scott Brown, Vulture: “(Director Sam) Gold has applied his trademark invisible grace: letting pertinent silences bloom in the empty space between lines, trusting his actors implicitly, rejecting affectation, letting a variety of approaches and styles coalesce in an atmosphere of honesty.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: “(Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan) share youth and good looks, but no sizzle -- there’s more sexual chemistry among the cast of ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes.’ Luckily, director Sam Gold (‘Seminar’) also hired the experienced Ellen Burstyn, Mare Winningham, Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel who expertly handle the shifts from comedy to drama, and back again.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: “Mare Winningham is affecting as Madge and Millie’s watchful mother, Flo. ... She’s a pensive woman who presumably missed her own window, got entangled with the wrong man and now watches anxiously as Madge looks set to repeat the pattern. ... A similar shadow of regret is etched beneath the warmth and cheer of Burstyn’s Helen. Unlike Flo, the fluttery neighbor can still enjoy the idea of romance, even if it’s far removed from the reality of an unfulfilled life spent taking care of her demanding mother. A scene between Burstyn and Winningham near the end is exquisite."

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