“Picnic” is a natural for reviving in these revival-crazy times, and it’s hard to believe that William Inge’s charged yet lyrical evocation of small-town despair and frustration hasn’t had a Broadway reprise before now. Scott Ellis’ maddeningly uneven production for the Roundabout obscures some of the 1953 play’s pleasures and suggests that film and TV beauty Ashley Judd (“Ruby in Paradise,””Sisters”) needs considerably more seasoning before making her mark as a stage actress. Ditto her “Picnic” pursuer, Kyle Chandler.
Judd stars as Madge Owens, who has traded well on her beauty and is in the process of snaring a good catch in Alan Seymour (Tate Donovan), a husband who, her mother Flo (Polly Holliday) points out, would provide her with “charge accounts in all the stores.”
That Madge is also a vain, empty-headed twit is pointed out with some regularity by her brainy, artistically minded younger sister, Millie (Angela Goethals). No matter; everyone dotes on the lovely Madge, including Rosemary Sydney (Debra Monk), the spinster schoolteacher who boards with the Owenses, and elderly Helen Potts (Anne Pitoniak), who lives across the yard.
This lonesome-female territory is turned inside-out one Labor Day weekend when Helen feeds breakfast to a hunky drifter named Hal Carter (Chandler), a former college fraternity brother of Alan’s trying to get his life back on track. When the bare-chested Hal starts doing yardwork to pay for the meal, the sparks he sets off are hotter than any that Disney has provided a few blocks north for Broadway’s other Mrs. Potts.
At least they ought to be. Poster-perfect, the muscular Chandler nevertheless lacks any sense of danger or sexual recklessness. The same is true of Judd, ill-suited to the luxuriant strawberry blond mane she can’t keep her hands out of. Both actors always seem to be playing to an unseen camera; they spend more time preening than connecting with each other or the folks watching in supposed horror as the spell takes hold.
To emphasize the cheerlessness of these lives, Ellis has set “Picnic” in the heart of the Great Depression, a decade or so earlier than the original, altering some of the timely references along the way, though in truth the change neither adds nor detracts anything. He’s also eliminated the intermissions, and that does help move things along.
The staging is quite reminiscent of his more effective work on the similarly themed “110 in the Shade” production for the New York City Opera. And there, too , he teamed with choreographer Susan Stroman in evoking the sensual urgency festering below the surface of ordinary people living small, crabbed lives in the middle of nowhere.
Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting gets the blanching heat right, but even with its rotting billboard and ramshackle porches, Tony Walton’s wood-chip-strewn set seems more quaint than mean, as is typically suggested. As always, William Ivey Long has dressed the women, especially Judd, very sexily; no one except Ann Roth does period costumes better.
Monk steals the show as Rosemary, a contrary blend of self-righteousness and libertinism who finally gets her man, and Larry Bryggman is equally fine as Howard, the man she gets (though he overplays the hangdog aspect). Pitoniak beautifully underplays Helen’s delight in having this new man around, and Holliday plays Flo with a powerful sense of horror at the inevitability of it all. Goethals is delightful as Millie. Donovan is OK as Alan, as are W. Aaron Harpold as an annoying newsboy and Audrie Neenan and Charlotte Maier as Rosemary’s colleagues.
But these are supporting roles, while the principals literally leave a lot to be desired. Inge was the Midwest’s dramatic poet; his voice is heard only haltingly here.