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By MARK PEIKERT
Terence Rattigan spent a decade as one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th century, writing hits like Separate Tables, The Deep Blue Sea, and The Browning Version before the 1956 advent of John Osborne and kitchen-sink drama made his well-made plays seem old hat. Despite the odd film or stage production, his work was largely forgotten decades.
Recently, however, he has returned in force, with major revivals in the West End and last year's critically lauded film adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea bringing him to renewed cultural prominence. The Roundabout has also been part of the mini-movement. They revived Rattigan's Man and Boy in 2011, and from now until December 1, they're presenting one of his first major hits, the 1946 drama The Winslow Boy.
On Broadway for the first time since its initial run ended in 1948, The Winslow Boy follows a 14 year-old who is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order in 1917. Convinced his son is innocent, the boy's father (Roger Rees) takes the matter all the way to the House of Commons, suing the Crown for a fair trial.
All of this could be deadly for American audiences unfamiliar with either the era's rigid codes of honor or the British judicial system, but Lindsay Posner's production finds the actors casually tossing off complicated legalese with clarity and precision.
That level of comfort with the material is all the more remarkable given that this is mostly an American cast. They're the only all-new component of a production that was originally presented at the Old Vic. Even the sets are recreated from that staging, with only a door slightly moved to fit the stage at the American Airlines Theatre. And though Posner had some trepidation about fitting new actors into a previous production, he quickly overcame his concerns.
"I deliberately put the [Old Vic production] out of my mind," he says. "You have a kind of sense memory when you work on a play, but this was just a normal process. We spent the first days sitting around a table talking about lines of dialogue, and then once everyone stands on their feet, they know they're working to something."
Part of the discussion focused on the play's very British attitudes. The Winslow Boy is as much a play about class as it is about clearing one's name, and class is something that rarely enters the American conversation.
"My fear of the cast not relating to the Britishness of the play and the nuances of the British class structure proved unfounded," Posner says. "Everybody in the company understood very quickly what I was talking about. And actually, in terms of audience response, it's been identical to London. The only thing that one adjusts to really is laughter, in terms of waiting for the laughs to die down."
The laughs come early and frequently, which may be surprising to audience members who are only familiar with David Mamet's 1999 film adaptation ("I looked for the humor more than perhaps David Mamet did in his movie," Posner says dryly). Even as the Winslow family faces financial ruin, funny moments still arise from their battle. These often hinge on Mrs. Winslow (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who grows from wifely accessory to tormented witness to gleeful participant. "The only reason [the play] works is because it's a family drama," Posner says, and his production bears that out.
However, there are still handicaps to be overcome for a predominantly American troupe portraying a middle-class British family. This time around, Posner says, the concept of emotional repression was less familiar to his actors "for obvious reasons." And then there are the accents. "Inevitably, I have a completely different ear even to an American voice coach," Posner says. "And yeah, it does jar. Particularly in this play, which has upper-middle-class, working class, and middle class [characters]. I think they're doing well, but I'm still telling them to pick up phrases." He pauses and laughs. "But it must be the same for Americans when British actors play American characters."
Mark Peikert is Senior Editor of Backstage Magazine
Photo by Joan Marcus