Traditional, expertly written plays about important issues, with real people saying real things to each other on skillfully designed sets that evoke total naturalistic consistency, are in great demand and short supply. It is therefore a thrill to spread the welcome mat for Man and Boy, the 1963 play about corruption in the world of business and finance, by the great Terence Rattigan. To celebrate the centennial year of a writer who was, along with his contemporary Noel Coward, renowned for emotional subtext and elegance of syntax, the Roundabout has graced us with a splendid revival of one of his lesser but bolder plays, briskly directed by Maria Aitken, with a blazing centerpiece performance by Frank Langella that simmers with fury and rage.
The year is 1934, the setting a shabby basement flat in Greenwich Village shared by a poor saloon piano player who calls himself Basil Anthony and his actress-girlfriend Carol. It doesn’t take long for the morning paper to arrive, revealing a crisis on Wall Street involving Romanian-born Gregor Antonescu, the richest capitalist on earth and a captain of industry who rescued the world during the financial collapse of the 1920s. Antonescu is now in free fall, the economy is in danger of arterial sclerosis, and the headlines roar with terror over what his collapse might mean to the future of the stock market. Why this bad news has such a deleterious effect on an entertainer in a cheap Village night club is puzzling, but it soon becomes clear that Basil is really Vasili Antonescu, the financier’s estranged son, hiding from his name and his past, whose last encounter with his father was five years earlier when he pointed a loaded gun at the old man’s head and walked out of his life forever. Now Antonescu is on his way to his son’s ratty apartment in search of place to hide from the press while he brokers a clandestine deal to save his one-man empire from a ruin that equals the stock market crash of 1929. His uninvited visit is announced by his loyal but sinister emissary Sven (well played by Michael Siberry), who promises an air of mystery for reasons that soon become obvious.
The opening scenes of exposition, devoted to laying the groundwork for what’s coming, are slow and tedious, but from the minute Frank Langella enters, wrapped in an expensive coat and looking like Hercule Poirot, the talk turns lethal, the plot thickens and the pace quickens. There’s never another dull moment as he sets up a sting that he hopes will ensnare an American CEO named Mark Herris (an oily Zach Grenier) into a merger that will insure his economic survival. A venal serpent, ruthless and cold, who calls himself a powerful friend of Stalin, Mussolini and the White House, Antonescu is a cutthroat who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal—including selling his own son into homosexual prostitution. He’s done his homework and he knows the CEO is a closet case who kept his former boyfriend in a posh pad on Park Avenue before he committed suicide, so he passes Basil off as a gay hustler and a pawn, going so far as to threaten his adversary with blackmail if he doesn’t seal the deal. The scheme almost works, but in Act II the bricks of his evil architecture tumble down when the F.B.I. issues warrants to arrest him for numerous crimes including forgery and embezzlement. Facing prison, deportation or both, the amoral crook who achieved wealth and fame by swindling the followers who trusted him has only two choices left—escape or suicide. It’s likely he will try both, as he heads into a rainy autumn night with a gun in his pocket as the curtain solemnly falls.
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.