Hunky Drifter Stirs Local Biddies in ‘Picnic’: Review

We never get to the picnic that plays the title role in William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize- winning potboiler.

But we sure do see the ants-in-the-pants that bestir the lonesome ladies in a Kansas backyard when a handsome drifter shows up looking for work.

No sooner has Hal Carter sauntered in, gleaming with sweat and eager to doff his denims, than jaws drop and eyes pop.

Especially the widow Helen Potts, played by Ellen Burstyn with a delicious pheromonal glint.

Helen has taken Hal in as a boarder in exchange for yard work. The space joins two humble clapboard dwellings in Andrew Lieberman’s postcard-perfect setting of Sam Gold’s Broadway revival for the Roundabout Theatre.

Next door lives Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) and her daughters: Madge (Maggie Grace) the elder, pretty one, and Millie (Madeleine Martin), the younger, smart one. Guess who Hal (the beefcakey Sebastian Stan) sets his sights on?

Madge is a goner. Never mind her wealthy beau Alan (Ben Rappaport), who can only watch as nature and Hal have their way.

Labor Day

The voltage is higher in Joshua Logan’s 1955 film -- starring a smoldering Kim Novak and a feral William Holden -- than it is in this earnestly detailed but sexless revival. Sebastian and Grace look the parts, but an essential element of palpable desire is missing.

Still, if there’s any justice in the world, a special Tony Award for most intense duet would go to Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel, who play Howard and Rosemary, the owner of a dry-goods store and a school teacher.

“You were awful nice to me tonight, Rosemary,” Howard says, and there’s no doubting what he means by that.

Rosemary has marriage on her mind; Howard’s fine with the status quo. But when these two people -- so comfortable with each other that the line between them can blur -- confront a grim, solitary future, “Picnic” rises above its pulpy plot to become a more incisive and moving portrayal of small-town isolation and loneliness.

Marvel and Birney suffuse the show with an electricity that’s otherwise absent. They’re well worth your time.

Through Feb. 24 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-719-1300; Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on books and Elin McCoy on wine.