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Theater review: 'The Subject Was Roses' at Mark Taper Forum

February 21, 2010 | 10:05 pm
Subject roses 1

“The Subject Was Roses,” Frank D. Gilroy’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, is a small yet scrupulous study of the misery that normally goes undetected in the photo album of an ordinary middle-class family. Yet it’s no mystery why the work hasn’t been seen on Broadway since its original production: The play, no classic, seems dated. 

There, I said it. But that doesn’t mean that the writing is without merit. Or that theatergoers won’t get a kick out of seeing Martin Sheen, who played the 21-year-old returning veteran son in the Broadway premiere and now takes on the role of the jumpy middle-aged Irish American father in the Mark Taper Forum’s new production.

Gilroy brings a quiet candor and a refreshing lack of sensationalism to his depiction of a household that was dysfunctional before dysfunctional was a pop-psychology buzzword. These qualities are on display in Neil Pepe’s sensitive production, which in addition to Sheen, features stage veteran Frances Conroy (so memorable as the funeral parlor mother on HBO’s dearly departed “Six Feet Under”) and Brian Geraghty (part of the superlative acting force of “The Hurt Locker”).

Subject roses 2 Lovers of late-night movies on TV will no doubt remember the 1968 film version of “The Subject Was Roses,” in which Jack Albertson and Sheen, reprising their stage roles, were joined by a post-stroke Patricia Neal as the quietly desperate wife and mother. With his screen portrayal, Albertson, to whom Sheen has dedicated his Taper performance, entered a select club of actors to have won a Tony and Oscar for playing the same part.  

All right, given this impressive pedigree, what's my beef? Well, beyond the play’s passé style, I have trouble with the workmanlike use of the symbolic roses that inspire the title and even more with scenes that sometimes seem like acting workshop exercises.

Set in a Bronx apartment with decorative touches that the stage directions suggest were old-fashioned even in 1946, when the action is set, the drama manages to rise beyond its outmoded trappings only through the honest reckoning of its characters’ sorrow. Indeed, the initial effect of Gilroy’s play stemmed from the way it approached its conventional domestic subject with an unconventional truthfulness.

This refusal to whitewash complicated — even pathological — family dynamics continues to rescue the work from its doldrums. Certainly, there’s no mythologizing of John and Nettie’s marriage, as their begrudging breakfast conversation, which opens the play, makes clear.

John might be suffering a hangover from last night’s party for Timmy, who’s still sleeping off his celebratory return from war. Yet the couple’s curt marital exchanges, edging always toward argument, have an entrenched familiarity to them. Not even the “Welcome Home, Timmy” banner hanging in the other room can cheer up their dour routine.

Timmy, who left for battle an oversensitive boy and returned a more confidant young man, hasn’t yet figured out how he’s going to handle the incessant maneuvering of his parents, who seem to have targeted his affections in their conflict with each other. He tries to please both of them, but that’s a proposition as doomed as his attempt to spark a revival in their marriage by buying flowers for his mother and pretending that they’re from his father.

Those roses, the same kind that Nettie's father always used to send on her birthday until his death, have a strained prominence. The subject, of course, isn’t bouquets but what they represent — the love that has faded between two adults whose union was a mistake in every respect but for a son who must learn that he’s powerless to resolve their unhappy stalemate.

Sheen, setting aside the presidential hauteur he brought to his role in TV's “The West Wing,” presents John as a scrappy, self-made type whose inability to deal with emotions clearly doesn’t mean that he’s not roiled by them. This guy is moody and jittery, not to mention frequently soused, because he’s always dancing around the failures in his home life. Sheen lets you feel the knife's edge under John's quick step.

Adopting a meek, high-pitched voice, Conroy gives us more than just martyred wife. Watch how Nettie’s frigid demeanor turns blazingly passionate toward her son, who on the morning after his homecoming, leads her in an impromptu dance that instantly whips her dejected spirits into a cyclonic reverie.

Geraghty, wearing his character’s need for love on his sleeve, emphasizes Timmy’s boyish tenderness. Exploding with an open-mouthed laugh at his old man’s every hoary joke, he vainly tries to flatter a father who has trouble expressing the most basic paternal sentiments.

As watchable as these talented cast members are, there’s something slightly awkward about their chemistry. Granted, this is a family that isn’t meant to be comfortable together. Yet I had a hard time accepting this trio as a unit. Instead of sinking into the realism, I found myself often observing good actors act.

One scene late in the play between Conroy and Geraghty, however, captured the naturalness that Gilroy’s drama requires. Sitting together in the living room in the middle of the night, (Rui Rita's lighting lyrically bestows a sepia tinge on scenic designer Walt Spangler’s vintage urban interior), Nettie shares with Timmy all that led to her misbegotten marriage.

Conroy delivers Nettie’s recollection as though the words were just tumbling from her tired mind. When Timmy replies, “Now I suspect that no one’s to blame…not even me,” the anguished voice isn’t that of the playwright spelling out his theme. The line belongs to a son maturing before our eyes.

--Charles McNulty

Follow him on Twitter at CharlesMcNulty

"The Subject Was Roses," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. When:  8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends March 21. $20 to $65. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Related story:

Martin Sheen comes full circle with 'The Subject Was Roses'

Photos: Top, Frances Conroy, Brian Geraghty and Martin Sheen. Bottom, Sheen. Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times