Christopher Hitchens once said that he came from a family of people who were “Tories but with nothing to be Tory about”. This seems to be a fair description of the family that is the main subject of “The Winslow Boy”, which is now playing in Manhattan at The American Airlines Theatre. I watched it a couple of Fridays ago.
The play itself, like some of Terence Rattigan’s other work – The Browning Version comes to mind – has a simple plot focused on people who are mistreated by the society that they revere. The Winslows are a modestly middle-class Edwardian family. The father (Roger Rees) has retired with a comfortable, if modest, pension from a bank. His wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) likes the finer things. Their older son, Dickie (Zachary Booth) is a bumbling fool who has a fair bit in common with Bertie Wooster, including foppish tastes and very little likelihood of ever supporting himself. The family also boasts a daughter of marriageable age with a rich suitor, Catherine (Charlotte Parry, who dominates the latter segments of the play) and a younger son, Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford), who is at naval school. What starts out as a Noel Coward-esque comedy of manners quickly turns darker when Ronnie Winslow comes home from school, expelled on a charge of theft. The father’s sense of honour and justice is offended. He decides to fight the charge.
Enter Alessandro Nivola, as the greatest silk of his day and the Winslows’ lawyer, Sir Robert Morton. (The character is roughly based on real-life barrister and Northern Irish politician Sir Edward Carson. The entire play has its genesis in a real life incident.) Morton takes the case after subjecting Ronnie to a withering interrogation. From this point on, the play is Morton’s, at times alone and often sparring with feisty Catherine Winslow. As a lawyer, struggling against odds, he wins the audience’s admiration, even as the family seems to self-destruct (in some cases, physically) around him and under the weight of legal fees. (The older son’s change in circumstances seems to transport him from a Woosterish existence to that of the real life P G Wodehouse, forced to take a role in a bank by dint of his family’s straitened means.) As the legal battle unfolds, the audience finds itself asking questions as to the characters’ – and especially the father’s – motivations, and as to whether all this pain is worth it. While the setting and events of the play are dated now, the questions it raises about honour and dignity and justice remain relevant. As a lawyer, too, the anti-establishment stance that Morton takes has modern echoes, be it in Neal Katyal’s successful defence of Osama bin Laden’s driver or in the odds against Stephen Donziger in his quest for compensation for indigenous Ecuadorian people against large business interests. Not all such lawyers are successful, and sometimes, they may not even be all that righteous. Separating the personal from the professional can nonetheless be hard when things are against you. The fictional Sir Robert Morton is an example of how to keep your emotions in check when a case touches you personally.
In this role, Nivola is superbly understated and cool. (He was the reason why I went to watch the show, if I’m honest. A long Wikipedia ramble a few weeks ago revealed that Nivola is married to Emily Mortimer and dated Rachel Weisz. I’ve recently self-diagnosed a troubling fondness for attractive, intelligent, brown-haired Englishwomen. Nivola has spent time in solitude with both of them. I’m insanely jealous.) The rest of the cast is also top class. The production is worth watching, so long as you don’t expect to debrief the thing over many glasses of whisky in The Players Club as you would any performance of Richard III. The actors are very good and the production outstanding, but the play isn’t quite deep enough to sustain it. Do drink whisky afterwards, though. Single malt, and neat. Always.
* * *
Another play asking questions about justice and honour at the moment is Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola, which is playing in an intimate underground setting at The Manhattan Theatre Club. I went last Friday evening. I’ve liked Peet as an actress since I saw her in Jack and Jill at the cusp of the millennium. (It’s delicious to say such things now that we’re a few years on from the bug that never was.) It turns out that she can write reasonably clever and quite interesting plays, too. The Commons is only an act long, and again isn’t terribly complicated. Its riff on the theme which captivated Woody Allen in Blue Jasmine, though, is thought-provoking. If Bernie Madoff was the tragic male figure of our times, both Allen’s film and Peet’s play ask, then what was Ruth? A naïve but loyal (and ridiculously comfortable) Desdemona? Or a conspiratorial Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth? (Tangentially, too, Blue Jasmine and The Commons might also finally be thinking about the henchman’s family. Well, no, they probably aren’t, but I did want to link to that brilliant Austin Powers scene …)
Clearly this is a more contemporary setting for morality questions than The Winslow Boy. Peet’s narrative leaves one in little doubt that her sympathies lie with the putative fraudster’s many victims. A fetching monologue by elder daughter Ali (played by Ali Marsh) and a longer intervention by the younger daughter’s boyfriend (Michael Stahl-David) are effective chorus-like devices for these thoughts. The presence of a granddaughter and a maid also complicate things. Unlike Blue Jasmine, which leaves the question as to the wife’s knowledge of and profit from the Ponzi scheme slightly open, Commons gives its audience an unequivocal answer once half an hour of the ninety minute play has elapsed. The question that then frames the rest of the play is how the family – and especially the struggling younger daughter, Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker) – should react.
There are moments of humour and hilarity as Parker and the phenomenal Blythe Danner try to make two women who seem only to deserve our scorn sympathetic. I may be among the few straight men alive who can recall the entire chronology of Sex and the City. (After watching the play, I tweeted that the show was one of the reasons I came to terms with living in Manhattan and that I was thrilled to have seen Carrie in the flesh. I sometimes still cry at the YouTube clip of the ending of season 2 and at the achingly perfect closing to “La Douleur Exquise”, six episodes earlier.) It is thus only with affection that I wonder if my fondness for Parker’s Becca stems from the fact that, at times, she seems like she could so easily have been Carrie, down-on-her-luck and without the Vogue or NY Post contracts or the gallant knight in shining armour who rescued her, and saddled with a criminal father to boot. (Typecasting is so unfair and I detest myself for drawing the comparison. I’ll probably need to see her in a few more things before coming to a judgment.) Danner gave me no such concerns as Judith, the matriarch. To turn a thoughtful audience’s feelings for a character from tentative affection to disgust at her insouciance during the space of 90 minutes is no mean feat. Danner manages it beautifully.
I wonder why it is that Mrs Madoff is the subject of so much artistic conjecture and speculation, five or so years after her husband’s wrongdoing was first uncovered. What does this fascination say about our collective (predominantly Manhattan) psyche? Is it mere schadenfreude? Is it a sense that she hasn’t sufficiently atoned for her sins after having enjoyed the fruit of Madoff’s crime? Or is it something more? Whatever it is, Allen’s and Peet’s wildly differing interpretations suggest that her story and motives may provide a rich seam for playwrights and filmmakers to mine for a little while yet.
The Commons of Pensacola is a wonderfully contemporary and thoughtful play that kept me enraptured. I enjoyed it a great deal.