photo courtesty of Roundabout Theatre
The Roundabout Theatre in New York opens its 2011-12 season with a sober, well-written play by Terence Rattigan from l961. The ever reliable Roundabout, has decided to offer a play for our times that starkly makes its point, doesn’t belabor its message, and wraps up neatly, no apologies. With occasional humor and icy reality, we are presented with a Rasputin-like international financial wizard from the 1930’s, and his relationship with his estranged son.
In a word, you are led to think of these modern day figures from recent history: Bernie Madoff, Bernie Ebbers, Samuel Israel, Jeffrey Skilling from Enron, Ken Lay, Scott Rothstien, Tom Peters, Alan Stanford, Jerome Kerviel, etc., characters all famous for over consumption, and feeding at the trough of public gullibility .Man and Boy is reputedly based on the life of Ivan Kreuger, an earlier version of a ponzi scheme artist, who killed himself for this same form of gluttony.
Stage icon, Frank Langella plays Gregor Antonescu, and does another great theatrical turn; he gives the feeling that the role was created for him because of his obvious physical bearing, wit and sophistication. A few seasons back, before Nixon/Frost, he played Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons; a supremely ethical man in the Court of Henry Vlll, who is led to the gallows for his beliefs. Here, he plays the polar opposite–an intriguing Romanian-born financier, who as his resume states, saved the post-war French Franc, brought roads to Yugoslavia, and electricity to Hungry. However, like a sophist, he is likely to bend the truth; for his raison d’etre is not in doing good, but at winning at all costs, no matter the method. In other words, his truth is another man’s slippery slope. For him there are only two kinds of people, those who do and those that don’t. As an actor, Langella certainly does, and is riveting in his theatrical skills and believability; his diction, behavior, and command of the stage even makes his character sympathetic.
Antonescu has made a fatal mistake. His vast empire is collapsing. The world has caught on to him–he has a severe “confidence and liquidity” problem; the stakes are enormous and pressure is mounting–his stock has dropped 23%, national financial calamity is eminent. Gregor Antonescu has already survived many set backs in his career, even numerous assignation attempts–can he survive this challenge? In the face of it all, he remains calm, detached, and even charming.
In a well conceived single-set play, we find Boris (Adam Driver), Gregor’s son, living with his girlfriend in a depression-era basement apartment, Greenwich Village, early 1930’s. A Socialist, Boris hasn’t seen his estranged father in five years. Suddenly, he receives a visit from his father’s assistant, Sven (Michael Siberry); the media of New York is hounding them for information, and need a safe house for an urgent middle-of-the-night meeting with the president of American Electric, in a last ditch effort to save the faltering merger with Manson Radio. It would be the most important meeting of Antonescu’s life, and he seeks his son’s help. Shocked to see his father in these circumstances, and remembering wounds from his demeaned past, Boris reluctantly agrees.
As the meeting unfolds, we see the characters emerge. Mark Herries ( Zack Grenier) president of American Electric plays his smallish role with quiet aplomb as the secure and knowing rival to Antonescu’s
pitch. Antonescu convinces, befuddles, and masterfully digresses in his cool, desperate attempt to reach an agreement, and as he does, he even astonishingly uses his own son as a homosexual lure for the executive he knows to be a closeted “fairy.”
Let’s put it this way: Plato, Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, or Mother Teresa wouldn’t ever go to Starbucks with Gregor. But if they did, Plato would say, did you ever consider that happiness does not follow from injustice?
Buddha would silently nod in agreement: Or that desire is the cause of suffering? Jesus listening would say, did you ever hear of my idea, Gregor my son, that man cannot live by bread alone? Yes, I always thought that too says Gandhi, and that oppression of others destroys the soul of man? Finally Mother Teresa hands Gregor a cookie, and says, come give your mother a hug, and remember even the rich are hungry for love.
But enough of this! This is exactly what the play doesn’t do–moralize. The direction is crisp and to the point, the actors don’t lay on sentiment or sermonize. Man and Boy is not presented as a morality play, but a play that tries to mirrors life, about choices people make from their own point of view. Langella and Driver, man and boy, or better, father and son, have an unbridgeable gap separating them. Antonescu’s life is driven by one passion only: to be recognized, to obey his dictum that says, appearances are all that count; love, as he states, is a commodity he cannot afford. His first wife, mother to Boris, was a Romanian burlesque dancer; his present wife, plucked from the London typing pool, received the title of Countess for a little money on the side. She, portrayed in broad strokes of cynical humor by Francesca Faridany, appears in a brief scene towards the end, to make sure her interests are secure; base and disloyal, she sees Antonescu as a meal ticket mostly, and desserts him when the pressure mounts. Faridany plays her as a hyperbole of a disloyal wife, that is very entertaining in an unedifying way Sven, his long time “loyal” assistant, also abandons Gregor, but not without showing some form of humanity in his mostly snaky self interest. Siberry does well here, as we see him transformed into a Svengali-like character.
As negotiations fall apart, as the tabloids of London report of Antonescu’s indictment for arrest, Antonescu is left alone without support. Only his son, the person Antonescu has abandoned as a boy, belittled as weak and worthless, comes to his aid with an open hand. Gregor senses his son’s love and humanity, and becomes his haunting conscious. As in Wordsworth’s poem, the child becomes father to the man, and in another sense, tries to help his father escape. But this will not do–it is much too late. There is no room for love. Alone in his son’s apartment, he examines a earlier photo of the two in a happier time–a lost moment on a beach in Biarritz. Gregor has always know this day would arrive. He puts on his hat and coat, and without excuses, slips cold steel into his pocket and disappears into the night.
It was a sobering affair, with a quick double scotch to make it go down easier. Audiences should see works like these, as well as frothy ones like Anything Goes, for the full affect of what theatre can offer.