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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Dated Script, Slow Pace Stifle Passion in 'Picnic'

The romantic leads create believable sexual tension but that's not enough to invigorate the story's melodramatic plotting.

May 16, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

William Inge always intended "Picnic" as a play for the ages. Nabbing the Pulitzer was a good start, and it put Inge--for a short time--on top of the world.

But in one of the quirks that makes American pop culture endlessly trashy and wonderful, "Picnic" will probably stand throughout time as the moment when male actors became beefcake hunks. A stripped William Holden, with rippling pectorals, is the image of "Picnic," as much a part of the period before the sexual revolution as Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll" or James Dean in any of his movies.

The play? Well, for many in the audience, when Hal Carter, Inge's vagabond anti-hero, takes off his T-shirt and keeps it off for a while, it will be a welcome distraction from a fairly creaky '50s melodrama.

Director Lonnie Chapman's revival at the Group Repertory Theatre is a personal gesture: Chapman was in the Broadway cast of Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba," and he's had a warm spot for Inge ever since. But "Picnic," like Inge's "Bus Stop," is showing its age at an alarming rate.

Chapman's production is a kind of throwback to the big ensemble, big emotion dramas that were once the provenance of Group Rep. And many moments here feel as if a fresh, passionate approach is about to wipe the dust off "Picnic."

But explosions of feeling never quite happen, and a nagging, stuttering pace keeps this show grounded when it should fly.

Inge's story is all about animal magnetism. Hal (David Mingrino) blows into a Kansas town, and sweeps the gals off their feet: dowdy neighbor Helen (Geraldine Allen); tomboy-artist Millie (Rachelle Carmony); spinster school teacher Rosemary (Diane Frank, impressively replacing Irene Chapman); and especially Millie's pretty sis, Madge (Michele Vanwagner), who finally gets very magnetic with Hal.

But for every swooning female, Inge ensures that there's someone else in the way: Madge's and Millie's disapproving mother Flo (Jennifer Toffel); Madge's upstanding boyfriend Alan (Brent Gettelfinger); Rosemary's aging beau Howard (Robert Mont). Hal is the forbidden fruit, the snake in the grass, the wrench in the works. He's too literally a sex symbol, and never quite character enough to hold the play together.

Mingrino tries with his all to make Hal both--a sexy character. And the wordless sexiness that bounces between him and Vanwagner provides this show's sizzle, and its high point. The actors play these two as if it were destiny, and they were possessed, and it works.

The play around them, though, is in mothballs. Inge's brand of deep thinking (Flo: "It takes more than love to keep a man happy"), 'natural' exchanges (one character actually exclaims, "In a pig's eye!") and melodramatic plotting elicit unintended laughter nowadays. It's hard to imagine a revival that can avoid it, and this one can't.

Visually, this cast couldn't be better. Carmony does a wonderful dress-for-the-picnic transformation, while Allen lumbers with all the weight of an overly burdened woman. Gettelfinger looks every inch a fellow of good breeding, and Frank suggests a wild woman trying to break free. Without those pauses and dragging deliveries, this would be something to hear as well.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Picnic."

* WHERE: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 9.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

* CALL: (818) 769-7529.

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