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The Subject Was Roses

Under Leonard Foglia's direction, Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey play Frank D. Gilroy's drama for laughs rather than tears.

Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey in The Subject Was Roses
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
The Kennedy Center's much-anticipated revival of The Subject Was Roses, the 1964 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play by Frank D. Gilroy, is now on view at the Eisenhower Theatre. Sadly, the drama is shorn of its thorns in this production, its beauty wilted.

Time is not the primary culprit here, as one might expect. Set in 1946 as a young soldier returns home from the war to find that family problems have only festered and worsened in his absence, the play remains relevant; war has not gone out of fashion, and neither has family dysfunction. Gilroy wrote the play in the early years of the widening chasm between the generations as children, including those tempered by war's combat, struggled to free themselves from their parents' emotional and moral clutches. That hasn't changed either.

The blame for this revival's failure must rest on director Leonard Foglia's shoulders for his decision to focus on comedy rather than emotional substance. As a result, this Roses is a mildly entertaining diversion rather than a poignant or even searing experience. Foglia has his two esteemed lead actors, Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey, perform their roles almost strictly for laughs; only newcomer Steve Kazee gets to play it straight as their son, who returns stateside seeking his new place in life. Moreover, the exaggerated Bronx accents and the rapid pacing of some key scenes induce laughter when there should be emotional shock.

In Roses, Timmy Cleary (Kazee) comes home to his parents' apartment in the Bronx and quickly realizes that he doesn't quite relate to his homemaker mother Nettie (Ivey) or his salesman father John (Pullman) as he did before he left for the war. It takes only a few moments for simmering bitterness to break through the happy façade of his return; Timmy sees that his parents' relationship, troubled when he left, has further deteriorated into stone-faced resentment. The flash point comes when Timmy impulsively buys a bouquet of roses for his mother and insists that his father take credit for the gift. Nettie is touched, if slightly suspicious, and is deeply hurt shen she learns the truth. Gilroy wove other issues into the story, including Timmy's drinking and the fact that, because John never had to prove his own manhood in battle, he resents his son for having gone to war.

There's so much to work with in this play that it's difficult to understand Foglia's choices or his handling of the stars. Pullman, in particular, seems to be straining at the leash to give a fully dimensional portrayal. His John is a blustery man uncomfortable in his own skin -- bouncing on the balls of his feet, his hands twitching and fingers drumming, his face seeking some sort of accommodation with his inner self. Ivey wears Nettie's tension like a suit of armor; a chill is felt whenever she walks in on father and son, who are grappling with their own relationship.

The first act of Roses is admittedly laden with exposition, so perhaps Foglia can be forgiven for trying to move things along and get a few laughs before the heavy drama begins, but he doesn't allow the actors to get below the surface when the crunch finally comes. Because of the hurried pacing of the dialogue, the subtext is lost and important moments are given no weight. Towards the end of the play, the characters congregate in the apartment's well appointed kitchen. (Obie Award winner Neil Patel designed the spacious set.) Timmy repeatedly says that he is leaving to go off on his own, while his father keeps telling him that he must not. Finally, Timmy says he'll stay -- and John shoots right back that he can't. The entire play has been building to this moment, but it gets lost in the flurry of laughter that's provoked by the rapid switch in positions.

Gilroy attended the show on opening night and came out on stage after the curtain call to wish his wife of 52 years a happy birthday. He seemed to be in a good mood; maybe he came late to theater and didn't see what Foglia had done with his play.