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A CurtainUp Review
The Subject Was Roses
By Elyse Sommer
With its two acts and six scenes playing out in a realistically furnished living room and kitchen setting (complete with period perfect enamel sink) The Subject Was Roses epitomizes the realistic, kitchen sink family drama. Timmy Leary, the son who loves his parents but needs to strike out on his own, is somewhat reminiscent of Warren Leight's narrator in Side Man. Even more so, the disappointed with life John Cleary and his escapades with women evokes memories of Arthur Miller's Willie Loman (a 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner). But the Leary saga is the stuff of a much smaller American tragedy than Death of a Salesman and without the poetry and memorable quotes. Actually it was the more nuts and bolts realism of Gilroy's play, the fact that his characters spoke the way ordinary people speak, that was praised by critics of the original production. But what was noteworthy then has long since become run of the mill.
But while The Subject Was Roses isn't exactly a modern classic with a must-see relevancy nowadays, it does offer three actors a chance to bring out the various shades of feelings in meaty roles. Its also timely in that its small cast and single set fit the economic needs of modern producers.
The recent revival at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles offset the play's dated label with a news making casting opportunity: Martin Sheen who went from his career making role as Timmy Leary to become President on TV's long-running West Wing, returned to his stage roots, now playing the senior Leary. It also featured the well-known actress Frances Conroy as his unhappy wife.
The Pearl Theater's production boasts no such celebrity cast. Timmy is played by Off-Broadway and Pearl Theater newcomer Matthew Amendt and Nettie and John Cleary by Pearl veterans Carol Schultz and Dan Daily. I didn't see the Los Angeles revival, but Schultz strikes me as much more in the mold of Patricia Neal than Ms. Conroy (Neal made an Academy Award nominated comeback after a stroke as the film version's Nettie).
Daily is quite ideally cast as the blustery but frustrated Irishman. Amendt is completely believable in the role that has enduring relevancy: a son who wants to know the parents he loves better, and who, having become his own man, knows he must leave them or risk once again being a pawn in their private war — a war that's an outgrowth of their struggles with the demons of infidelity, failed ambitions, a long buried child and forever lost happiness.
Under Amy Wright's direction, there's a nice bloom on this old-fashioned bouquet. With the action confined to the Leary apartment — John and Timmy's ball game date, the whole family's night on the town and Nettie's 12-hour attempt at getting away from her confining, regret-laden life all happen off stage— the between scenes interludes could easily be clunky. Thankfully, they're not.
The actors make the most of the most emotionally engaging scenes. Daily makes Leary's mood swings border on being bi-polar, but he pulls back enough to avoid his being too extreme to win our sympathy. Harry Feiner's set and Barbara A. Bell's costumes reflect solid research and a feel for the period.
Given the talky and fairly inactive nature of this play, Ms. Wright might have trimmed it by at least ten minutes. However, there's nothing anyone could do to keep the bouquet of roses that gave Mr. Gilroy his title from being an instantly predictable metaphoric device. Still, Daily and Schultz ably create the no-holds-barred reality of two people who call a truce long enough to set their son free but whose own future together would be resistant to peaceful co-existence even in the near-distant future of more available marital therapy.