One doesn’t think of taboo-shattering dramas featuring wealthy, nattily attired men in suits, given that such landmarks tend to arrive in various states of undress accompanied by titles sticking a finger or two to the bourgeoisie (“Shopping and Fucking,” say). So it’s with some shock — though, given both the writing and Maria Aitken’s ice-cold production, not an iota of pathos — that one clocks the first-act finale of Terence Rattigan’s little-known “Man and Boy,” in which a stern-faced Romanian magnate pimps his own son to a gay American colleague.
“Man and Boy,” not surprisingly didn’t linger overly long upon its 1963 London premiere, in a production starring Charles Boyer, and, truth to tell, it’s hard to imagine the play setting the town alight four decades on. (The Duchess already has a followup tenant, Lindsay Posner’s revival of “The Birthday Party” starring Eileen Atkins and Henry Goodman, skedded for late April.)
Star David Suchet’s ability to cut an unwaveringly stern path across the course of nearly three hours, not even allowing himself the twinge of humanity granted Derek Jacobi’s comparably grim pater in “Don Carlos,” is admirable. But the cumulative effect of the play is to reel a bit from the calculation and cynicism of Rattigan’s purposefully, even pompously firm hand.
While the writing is full of exhortations along the lines of “never in the future let the truth make you cry,” the evening would actually be that bit more gripping if the playwright, like his central character Gregor Antonescu, let down his guard. That, alas, is not to be from an anti-hero for whom virtuousness is an affront. “I can at least cope with hatred,” Gregor snarls. “Love (is) a commodity I can least afford.”
Rattigan’s bequest has largely been one of decoding his sexual energies, so “Man and Boy” deserves credit for wearing its intentions on what might think of as a stiff upper sleeve. Barely has there been some uneasy banter about the possible homosexuality of Basil Anthony (a reedy Ben Silverstone), an Oxford-educated pianist living in a Greenwich Village basement apartment with American g.f. Carol (Jennifer Lee Jellicorse), before Suchet arrives, playing the father from whom Basil has long been estranged. And whom young Basil, on his 18th birthday, apparently tried to kill.
Are the two keen to make amends? What, you think Rattigan has morphed into Neil Simon, just because his play is set in 1934 New York? Guess again. With a serpentine cool, Gregor will do what it takes to shore up the financial freefall in which this industrialist extraordinaire now finds himself. (Among other things, he brought roads to Yugoslavia and electricity to Hungary: clearly a busy bee.)
And with his scarcely less suave “crown prince,” Sven Johnson (David Yelland), in fully complicit tow, that scheme involves pushing Gregor’s “too thin” son toward corporate fat cat Mark Herris (Colin Stinton), who has mistaken Basil as Gregor’s lover. How can we glean Herris’ interest? Because he speaks the necessary gnomic discourse, and Stinton brings the quiet pleasures of a slowly unfurling libido to rhetorical questions like, “Is what I’m thinking true?”
If “Man and Boy” rang true more often, it might be a genuine reclamation on the order of the Almeida’s “Deep Blue Sea,” directed by Karel Reisz in 1993, which remains London’s banner Rattigan revival of the past dozen years or more. Instead, one is all too aware of so deeply English a dramatist writing outside his immediate experience (if not his own apparent sexual demons). In a play in which hardly anyone is what he or she seems — a character introduced late on as the Countess (Helen Grace) turns out to be anything but — Rattigan seems to be trying on voices with varying degrees of success, as he attempts a reasonable discourse for both his American and Eastern European characters.
Too often, however, the language has an ungainly, cliche fit. Herris, for instance, says, “Don’t count your chickens,” in a bid to sound authentically Yankee, while Gregor’s outburst prior to the first-act curtain — he dismisses Herris as “a silly pink-faced old fairy” — says more about a dramatist’s apparent self-loathing than it does about a character whose vitriol is as monochromatic as the sentimental excesses against which this play rebels.
Still, jutting out amid a largely indifferent cast, Suchet’s eyebrows look especially fierce pressed into the service of a rabid capitalist who can’t abide feeling and regards emotions as indicative of a socialist-leaning son whose softness has made him weak.
Typically, it’s neither his wife nor his child who seems to excite Gregor in any way, but his aide-de-camp and fixer, Yelland’s smoothie of a Sven. What, pray tell, is that all about? Or must we wait for the sequel, “Man and Man”?