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The Subject Was Roses

Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by and at the Jean Cocteau Repertory, 330 Bowery, NYC, Feb. 15-May 3.

When originally produced in 1964, Frank D. Gilroy's autobiographical "The Subject Was Roses" was a harrowing experience, a dark night of the soul. From the moment the curtain went up, the tension between husband and wife John and Nettie Cleary was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. When son Timmy, returning from World War II, entered, he immediately became caught up in their games. The slightly watered-down film version went on to win Jack Albertson's John Cleary an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. The Roundabout Theatre revival some years ago was even more diluted.

David Fuller's revival at the Jean Cocteau Repertory makes three fatal mistakes. There is no tension in this family until the second act. No one seems the least bit Irish even though John Cleary, a devout Roman Catholic, has the Irish gift for blarney and the taste for drink. Set designer Robert Klinglehoefer hasn't captured the atmosphere of a Bronx apartment in 1946 in this very realistic kitchen sink drama. There are several obvious anachronisms, such as the counter kitchen and the misuse of the old-fashioned drip coffee pot.

As a result, the actors are left somewhat adrift in this languid and low-key production of a play that ought to be a powerhouse of emotion. Elise Stone, as the embittered wife Nettie, smiles too much when she should be angry and aloof. Craig Smith, as her disappointed and confused husband, does not bluster or pontificate, as Cleary must. Caught in the middle, Christopher Black, as the 21-year-old returning vet, tries to play peacemaker, but he isn't given any sparks with which to strike fire. Eventually, during the second act's revelation scenes, the play's hypnotic storytelling and sharply delineated characterizations take over, and "Roses" becomes moving despite the production's gaping flaws.

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