Brian Geraghty and Martin Sheen
in The Subject Was Roses
(© Craig Schwartz)
Brian Geraghty and Martin Sheen
in The Subject Was Roses
(© Craig Schwartz)
Martin Sheen is one of the most commanding and natural performers to observe on stage. He is also the most compelling reason to see the Mark Taper Forum's otherwise listless production of Frank Gilroy's 1964 drama The Subject Was Roses.

The original 1964 Broadway production starred Sheen as a young soldier back home after a tour of duty in Germany, and now Sheen returns as the boy's volatile father, alongside Frances Conroy as his wife and Brian Geraghty as his son.

The play traces how a precarious marriage collapses when the original dynamics of mother and son versus father have reformed. The son learns more than he bargained for about both his parents, particularly with a new perspective after three years of hellish battle against the Nazis. He has also learned to drink, a lot.

When the work was first on the boards in 1964, the country was in the beginning stages of war with a generation gap widening by the days. But in the last 46 years, many other plays have focused on civil war in the home front with more veracity and ferociousness.

Under Neil Pepe's direction, even the work's most dramatic moments deflate in front of you, in part because Conroy and Gergahty fail to connect with the audience. Conroy turns Nettie into a harpy, constantly nagging at her husband, and the actress' mannerisms and high-pitched twang do not vary throughout the evening. Geraghty would have benefited from solid direction. Both over-exaggerated and stiff, he waves his arm up in the air to punctuate his sentences as if he had a spasm, plays his drunken moments as if he had never had a sip of libations, and never connects with his two co-stars.

Obadiah Eaves' jazzy scoring between scenes is invigorating and appropriate for the 1940s Bronx setting. Unfortunately, the set by Walt Spangler is unattractive and clunky looking, as are Laura Bauer's drab dresses for Conroy. In many ways, this disappointing production is no bed of roses.