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New York City Theater

"The Winslow Boy"
American Airlines Theater

To say Terence Rattigan’s 1946 “The Winslow Boy” is about a young man who steals a five shilling note is like saying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is about a young man who wants to kill his uncle. Not that the former is in the same league as the latter, but to dismiss Rattigan as “merely” a boulevard writer of popular drama is to wrong him dearly.

Not only in “Winslow,” but in “Separate Tables,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “O Mistress Mine” and “The Browning Version,” his ear for the painful reverberations of broken hearts in the larger context of broken promises is unerring. That balance is beautifully achieved in Roundabout’s production of “Winslow Boy,” which originated at London’s Old Vic.

With attention to character, director Lindsay Posner picks at the motivations and actions of pawns in a larger struggle without neglecting its humor. Yes, young Ronnie Winslow has been expelled from school for supposedly pinching and cashing a postal note. The officials are sure of his guilt; his family is not. And where stands the famed Sir Robert Morton who may or may not take the case?

Specifically set just before the start of World War I, the tiny crime, if it was that, seems to pale in contrast to that bloody conflict among countries. Or does it somehow represent the battle between individual rights and the intractability of authority? When the Crown hesitates about allowing Ronnie’s case to go forward, we get a glimpse of the fine line between tyranny and democracy where power is concerned.

Add to the play’s fascination a splendid cast. Roger Rees progresses from bluster to vulnerability, both physically and psychologically. He cannot cure his body, but his mind and spirit gain strength. As the barrister, Sir Robert Morton, Alessandro Nivola tracks the hidden emotions of an outwardly emotionless man. His eating sandwiches while talking on the phone is the most delicious piece of business.

Matching him is Charlotte Parry as Ronnie’s no-nonsense suffragette sister, Catherine, a fit partner for Sir Robert in single-mindedness and integrity. She also has a delectable movement-with-speech bit, chattering away while dancing with her feckless brother, played with relish by Zachary Booth. As Desmond, Catherine’s awkward suitor, Michael Cumpsty gives perhaps the finest performance of his career.

This a first-class revival, from décor to details. With all the elements of a good story, intriguing characters and satisfying resolution, it’s a tip-top evening.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 1, 2013

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