NEW YORK (AP) — So many things onstage these days champion the notion that change is good — open your mind, learn to love what you fear, embrace the unknown. So it's refreshing to have something that cheers the hopelessly stubborn.
Terrance Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy" is a celebration of people who refuse to change, who will burn every bridge on their relentless, ill-advised march toward some goal, long past sanity.
An excellent revival of the Englishman's 1946 play that opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre ends with a father and daughter literally spent by a legal fight to clear their family name that has virtually destroyed their family's upper middle class life.
"I'm afraid logic has never been on our side," the sister says.
The Roundabout Theatre Company has wisely imported much of the show from The Old Vic Theatre in London, including a handsome set and costumes by Peter McKintosh as well as Lindsay Posner's crisp direction, which finds real humor in a play where jeopardy, though localized, is very present.
The work, based on a real case, centers on Ronnie Winslow, a 13-year-old expelled from naval cadet college for allegedly stealing a postal order on the eve of World War I. The fight to clear his name takes two years and costs pile up — Ronnie's ditzy older brother must withdraw from college, his sister's engagement is threatened and the maid may have to be laid off.
The Roundabout put on Rattigan's "Man and Boy" two years ago to mixed results, but this one proves better crafted and shines with sly fun. (One zinger about the press still stings: "Whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write").
Roger Rees is excellent as the Winslow patriarch, a man whose body is beginning to betray him but whose dry humor and compassion stays intact. The touching scene in which Rees first confronts the frightened Ronnie over his expulsion reveals this father will be no stern Edwardian robot.
Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his wife is also strong, putting on a brave face though clearly anguished inside, and Michael Cumpsty turns in a fine performance as a suitor for the Winslow daughter who sadly knows he's out of her league. Charlotte Parry is coolly super as the daughter and gets feistier as the play progresses.
Alessandro Nivola as the hard-charging lawyer Sir Robert Morton turns in a comic gem as a "cold-blooded, supercilious, sneering fish" of a man, but we see the sparks fly between him and the Winslow daughter. Nivola sometimes threatens to overpower the drama with farce — watching him languidly eat sandwiches while on the phone will make you howl — but he adds a zing when the play begins to sag. His cross-examination of the Winslow boy that ends the first act is superbly tense.
The Winslow case, a debate over justice and what's right that eventually was debated in the House of Commons, is perhaps a "sordid little storm in a teacup," but this production shows that it matters dearly for some in the family, even if the Winslow boy himself naps through some critical parts, his interest in his own case depleted. The stubborn, though, fight on gloriously as he sleeps.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits