Man Up: Roundabout Delivers on Rattigan’s Great Depression Drama

Langella’s corrupt broker is a must-buy even on Black Tuesday.

When Sir Terence Rattigan (he was knighted in 1971, six years before his death) wrote Man and Boy for Rex Harrison, he was turned down because of the unsavory gay element. (Mr. Harrison later played a flaming queen in the film Staircase.) So the role of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful con man went to Charles Boyer, who eschewed the vile elements of Antonescu’s brutish character and settled, to the writer’s relentless dissatisfaction, for Gaelic charm instead of truth. “He played him like a headwaiter,” Rattigan later wrote in his memoirs. The reception in New York was frosty, and after 54 performances Man and Boy closed its shutters, never to be heard from again—until now. The timing is perfect. Rattigan’s reputation for craftsmanship, eclipsed by the arrival of John Osborne and the torn T-shirt “kitchen sink” plays of the anarchist ’50s, has been restored. London is rejoicing in a centennial year of revivals. Many of his 27 plays are enjoying sold-out productions in the West End, all of them are back in print, and there are three Rattigan biographies recently published. A haunting and exemplary new film of his highly praised play The Deep Blue Sea, filmed once before with Vivien Leigh, is set for release this winter with Rachel Weisz. His obituary was premature, and this new Broadway production of Man and Boy offers resonant proof.

Frank Langella is fearless in embracing the dark side of Antonescu without flinching. The way he plays people like chess figures, with his Bucharest accent and beady eyes, you know he’s capable of extortion, a Ponzi scheme of mammoth proportions, the buying and selling of souls—and worse. Moving in an agitated rhythm, he doesn’t just say Rattigan’s meticulously chosen words; he gives you the immodest messages of wit, intelligence and avarice behind them—like a great interpretive singer of sin songs. The rest of the cast is not up to his level, but they work hard to interface, and in the dull, underwritten role of the son, Adam Driver has moments of viable torment. Derek McLane’s set is a masterful clutter of rotting woodwork, exposed pipes and radiators, stains on the moldings and filthy upholstery. It’s a wonder of design, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Maria Aitken’s direction, in league with Mr. Langella’s colorful performance, mixes anguish, suspense, humor and even an occasional pinch of compassion for the odious protagonist. Unfortunately, it is not the writer, careful as he is in pruning away the clutter, who keeps you interested in Antonescu, but the star, whose every strategic move is mesmerizing. At times repellent in his manipulative vulgarity, at others tragic in his flawed priorities, the quality of his performance is staggering. He never totally obscures the fact that Man and Boy is not Terence Rattigan at his eloquent and compassionate best, but as a close-up view of the lengths to which corrupt men will go to play what they perceive as a game of blue-chip trading, it is anything but dated. Although set during the Depression, Man and Boy, in the wake of the Enron and Bernard Madoff scandals and the chaos of today’s unstable financial markets, takes on new relevance. It has whetted my appetite for more productions of more accessible Terence Rattigan plays, like The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, In Praise of Love and Separate Tables, to name a few. The beautiful fusion of language and ideas perfected in Terence Rattigan’s work deserves resurrection, and I can think of no better time than now.

rreed@observer.com