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The Subject Was Roses

The Pearl Theater Company serves up a mostly convincing revival of Frank Gilroy's Pultizer Prize-winning drama about a troubled marriage.

Matthew Amendt and Dan Daily in The Subject Was Roses
(© Sam Hough)
The strength of Frank D. Gilroy's 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Subject Was Roses, currently being revived by The Pearl Theatre Company at City Center - Stage II, is in its restraint. A depiction of a disappointed marriage, the sensitively observed three character domestic drama depends on finely detailed, nuanced performances to fully achieve its poignancy. Under Amy Wright's direction, the cast s generally -- but not always consistently -- up to the challenge.

This delicate slice-of-life work, set in 1946, takes place in the working class Bronx apartment of the Irish-Catholic Cleary family, where son Timmy (Matthew Amendt) has returned home from World War II service. What might have been a happy homecoming is soon tense as father John (Dan Daily) and mother Nettie (Carol Schultz) talk across the breakfast table with a chilliness that seems long-standing. Their disagreements are about the trivial things -- the coffee isn't right, there was too much drinking the night before -- but the details in their interactions reveal the deeper distress of a marriage grown cold with betrayals and resentments.

During the course of the play, which takes place entirely over Timmy's homecoming weekend, it becomes increasingly clear that the marriage is dangerously fragile. Timmy, motivated to be the happy face that restores his parents' togetherness, has his father take the credit for a bouquet of red roses he buys for his mother. The lie briefly, and poignantly, puts a hopefulness in the household that, unfortunately, doesn't outlive the flowers.

The play is unquestionably from another time, and not all of it has aged so well. Although it generally remains a quietly effective, realistically etched portrait of a family, the dialogue sometimes creaks with the pat psychology of the 1950's. Further, time hasn't been forgiving to some of the transparent devices in the play; the subject isn't really roses, of course, but the faded love they represent, and the symbolism is quickly blunt for modern audiences.

Wright's staging, in the three-quarter thrust space dominated by Harry Feiner's realistic, period-accurate apartment set, is fluid and convincing. And for the most part, she's guided the performances toward kitchen-sink truthfulness. What the cast doesn't quite collectively do is believably capture the fleeting moments of hope in the first act. Without the sense that these characters have a fighting chance, the audience is watching a relentlessly downbeat story with a foregone conclusion.

Nonetheless, Amendt credibly renders Timmy's uneasiness as the character comes to understand that he can never go home again. Daily convinces as a man whose failures as a businessman, husband and father have put a hostile resentment just under his skin; he's especially good in a second-act scene where he brutally diminishes his son with casual coldness. Best of all is Schultz, who informs Nettie's every move with a troubled inner life.