The Subject Was Roses

Emotions run deep and wild in this solid revival of Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Subject Was Roses." But it begs the question: Will today's audiences find sufficient relevance in this quaint timepiece to fuel the Broadway aspirations of its producer?

With:
John Cleary - Bill Pullman Nettie Cleary - Judith Ivey Timmy Cleary - Steve Kazee

Emotions run deep and wild in this solid revival of Frank D. Gilroy’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Subject Was Roses.” But it begs the question: Will today’s audiences find sufficient relevance in this quaint timepiece to fuel the Broadway aspirations of its producer? Following “On Golden Pond,” which transferred from D.C. to the Rialto, producer Jeffrey Finn and director Leonard Foglia have mounted “Roses” for a brief Kennedy Center run and possible afterlife, adding to a recent wave of renewed interest in the play about a son who returns from WWII to discover with new maturity a disturbingly dysfunctional home life.

Finn’s production is first-rate in all departments. Foglia has assembled a terrific cast that wrings every ounce of emotion from Gilroy’s biting piece. It includes Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey as the mismatched duo and newcomer Steve Kazee as the earnest son thrust into a new conflict.

The marital discord seethes uncontrollably under Foglia’s careful direction from the moment the play opens on the Bronx apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Cleary in 1946. Neil Patel’s set peeks through the windows of the Clearys’ home before unveiling the Spartan kitchen and living room confines.

Pullman’s mercurial Irishman is a psychologist’s study in anger that touches all bases from passive to violent aggression, with emphasis on ridicule and sarcasm. The character’s emotions are never in check as he battles for household supremacy and the affections of his son. Pullman embraces it all in his astute presentation of the loathsome entrepreneur.

Ivey offers a heartwarming performance as the emotionally scarred wife, trapped in a life of spousal subservience and parental devotion. Her character is truly pitiable as she stoically copes with a world of frustrations while unwittingly maintaining the existence of a private hell.

Yet it is precisely this pre-women’s lib tolerance that makes the period play largely implausible to today’s auds and a relic that must stand on its own dramatic merits. That’s a tall order for a big-time production being eyed as a Broadway or touring vehicle.

Fortunately, there is much to like. The performance to truly savor is Kazee’s role as Timmy, who discovers his manhood in the uncomfortable context of his parents’ troubled marriage. As he insists on new respect from them, he seeks to redefine his relationships with both while forging new communications within the household. It is a demanding role that requires great sensitivity and determination, which Kazee pulls off in spades.

The Subject Was Roses

Eisenhower Theater; Washington, 1,110 seats; $78 top

Production: A Kennedy Center, Jeffrey Finn Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Frank D. Gilroy. Directed by Leonard Foglia.

Creative: Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Donald Holder. Opened, reviewed, Jan. 12, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: John Cleary - Bill Pullman Nettie Cleary - Judith Ivey Timmy Cleary - Steve Kazee

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