No Picnic: William Inge’s Classic Shows Its Dark Side

With Ellen Burstyn in an unusual role

Ellen Burstyn (background), Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan in Roundabout’s Picnic. (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

Ellen Burstyn (background), Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan in Roundabout’s Picnic. (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

Shirtless, shiftless drifter Hal Carter swaggers into a small Kansas burg one Labor Day weekend, inflames libidos right and left and, by the time everybody’s ready to return to work, has made off with the heart of the prettiest girl in town, Madge Owens, a five-and-dime clerk earmarked for Easy Street once she weds Hal’s old frat buddy Alan Seymour, the factory owner’s son. But Hal has high hopes he’ll land a job bellhopping in Tulsa—he tells her as he races after a passing freight train—and that’s enough for her to hop the next bus out of town. Love will find a way, right?

Sixty years ago, this qualified as a happy ending. In Roundabout’s anniversary revival of William Inge’s 1953 play Picnic, opening Jan. 13 at the American Airlines Theatre, we see it through jaundiced eyes, which, as it happens, is truer to Inge’s original intent.

Picnic is the first of two Pulitzer Prize-anointed plays returning to Broadway this month that have had their third acts radically revised by their original directors. (The other: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for which Elia Kazan persuaded Tennessee Williams to resuscitate Big Daddy Pollitt for one last clomp around the plantation.)

Picnic started life as Front Porch, a play about women of a certain age and the lives they didn’t get to lead—think: Madge’s single mom, her spinster-schoolmarm boarder Rosemary and the mama-dominated Mrs. Potts next door. After finishing Front Porch, Inge wrote Man in Boots (Hal’s story), and the fusion of the two plays sparked the interest of Broadway director Joshua Logan. In the course of moving Front Porch away from the loss and loneliness of the ladies and toward the first flush of young love, Logan pushed for a happy ending—and met much resistance.

Inge was adamant that Madge’s tryst with Hal cost her the marriage to Alan, tarnish her reputation in the community and assure her a seat on Spinsters’ Row. He went through various endings that would ring true to him and still satisfy Logan, who felt the audience would revolt if there was no sense the lovers would get together at the end. “It’s as though he killed his favorite child,” Logan wrote in his memoirs about Inge’s capitulation. Grudgingly giving in, Inge, who died in 1973 (Logan died in 1988), waited for a time when tough-thinkers could see what he was really saying. Maybe now he can stop spinning in his grave.

The Pulitzer was a nice consolation prize for the compromise. Logan won the Tony for his direction (re-direction, one could even say) and made an Oscar-nominated debut with a 1955 movie version, for which he really pumped up the romantic volume.

William Holden, in a triumph of miscasting, and Kim Novak, your garden-variety small-town love-goddess, played the two leads, memorably melding on the dance floor to “Moonglow.” (It was one of only four times in his career that Holden actually danced on screen. He hated to do it, and couldn’t do it in Picnic until he was thoroughly sloshed, which was okay, since he was supposed to be tipsy anyway.)

It’s not enough that Madge is, hands down, the prettiest gal around. Logan crowns her Queen of Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards) and sends her down the river on a flowery float like a virgin sacrifice. James Wong Howe’s cameras canvas rural Kansas like a blanket. An extended montage of the locals at fairground fun ’n’ games is one of the best displays of filmed Americana ever. And the most vaunted romantic vision of all is the final shot (captured by Howe’s assistant, the great Haskell Wexler, dangling from a helicopter) of Madge’s bus and Hal’s train moving toward a mutual destination.

Roundabout often catches flak for throwing roles to known TV faces, but it couldn’t be more on target with the combustible, almost hypnotically watchable pair it picked to play Hal and Madge—Sebastian Stan, the Mad Hatter of Once Upon a Time, and Maggie Grace, the Paris Hilton facsimile of Lost. He’s a washboard torso who acts; she’s a long-stemmed willowy blonde who moves with sensual assurance. In close proximity to each other, they boil and bubble in wordless lust.

The gorgeous Ms. Grace turns out to be a quite literal manifestation of Logan’s romantic revisionism. “Picnic was, like, my parents’ favorite film,” she confessed, not at all shyly, in an interview with The Observer. “I had to wait till I was old enough to see it, because they thought it too racy for their children to see. But it’s really a thing in our family, a cherished story. That I’m making my Broadway bow in Picnic seems quite synchronistic, I must say.”

Mr. Stan’s previous Broadway exposure didn’t require the full tank of macho that Picnic does: he was the lunatic listener who stormed Liev Schreiber’s sound booth at the end of 2007’s Talk Radio. “In college,” he told The Observer, “I became a very big Eric Bogosian fan, so to be in one of his plays was important to me. That experience affected me a lot, I remember, and I’ve been looking for a chance to get back on stage ever since.”

The actors, both of whom will hit the Big 3-0 on their next birthdays, counted Picnic a lucky catch—but neither could predict much of a future for their respective characters. Only Mr. Stan could see a flicker of hope, but conceded it would be uphill.

Ms. Grace was at least relieved that Madge never sank to the level Inge intended. “Logan referred to the original ending as ‘an attenuated rosary of disappointments.’ Hal was run out of town, and Madge ended up ‘the town pump.’ Logan and the cast and even Tennessee Williams maneuvered him out of that, but he was pretty angry.

“I love the ending that’s there. He was afraid if he sent everyone off in a rosy sunset, that would betray the play. He thought that would be corny, but it’s actually a quite nuanced ending that leaves it up to the audience—their thoughts and their hopes.”

Director Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Big Meal, the recent Look Back in Anger), knows the only way to make a primal romance fly in the face of reason is to turn up the sexual heat. This he does in spades, and his two young stars put up a powerfully persuasive case against logic.

A hard-working supporting cast surrounds this steamy center ring, and this is a specialty of Mr. Gold’s. “I love ensemble plays,” he said. “I love seeing the energy that comes out of so many great actors mining so many great characters. I’ve got a great cast here, and now I just have to watch them surprise me with amazing stuff every day.”

Picnic’s pièce de résistance is, and always has been, the proposal scene, in which Rosemary, panicked by the start of another school year, begs her boyfriend Howard for a permanent commitment. It’s a tricky scene to pull off, heartbreaking and hilarious by sharp turns, and it has been entrusted to two very skilled character actors—Elizabeth Marvel and Reed Birney.

“It’s beautiful and very painful and quite interesting to explore,” said Ms. Marvel. “I think what Inge is writing about with Rosemary is his own fears, his own hopes about mortality. It’s more about mortality than any sort of love affair. It’s about seeing the end of the pier and saying, ‘I only have this piece of time left. What do I want to do with it? What is it going to mean?’ And I think those are big things.

“Rosemary is a fighter for her life. She will do whatever it takes to move forward. Like Inge, she is a very conflicted soul, wrestling with loneliness—‘fighting against the dying of the light,’ as Faulkner once said.”

She did envision a reasonably bright tomorrow for her character: “I’ve always felt positive about it. Where Rosemary is at—one way or another, she’s going to make a change. These two people have a good friendship. That’s a lot going into a marriage. Is it the Romance of the Century? I don’t think so, but at least they’re good partners.”

No Picnic: William Inge’s Classic Shows Its Dark Side