16 August 2002: Gilroy, The Subject was Roses

Gloucester Stage, Massachusetts. A play by Frank D. Gilroy

Israel Horovitz’s company in its twenty-third season. This company has survived far longer than most shoestring, wish-and-a-prayer companies do. Horovitz greets the audience himself, makes a few aggressive jokes about cell phones left on during the performance, puts the screws to the audience to buy $100-a-ticket raffle chances (first prize: $5000) — he got three takers, whose credit cards were immediately confiscated — and apologizes for taking so much of the audience’s time, already hot and impatient in this un-air-conditioned theatre seating perhaps 175 and just barely tolerable after five days of 90° + weather.

Finally, the play begins, and almost immediately it all seems to have been worth the wait. This is a crisp, tautly written family drama that swept the critics off their feet in 1965 in New York, winning a Pulitzer and other awards. It is currently enjoying a revival in various regional venues. Horovitz says he thinks it’s as good as Death of a Salesman and that the only reason it hasn’t achieved the reputation of Miller’s’s play is that Gilroy is not a self-advertiser like Miller. Irritating. The play is not in the same league with Miller’s’s, but it is a fine example of kitchen-sink realism all the same.

Timmy Cleary has arrived home from World War II (the scene is an apartment in the West Bronx, in May 1946) unscathed; but in the three days he spends with his unhappy, frustrated, warring parents he picks up a bodyful of shrapnel and by the end of the play is planning to move back out the next day. Gilroy’s take on dysfunctional families is that two is company and three is a crowd, and in the threesome it’s inevitable that two take sides and gang up on the third. In this case, the mother and the son gang up on the father, the son being used as a weapon by the wronged wife and mother, Nettie Cleary, to punish her wayward husband John. (The truth of Wilde’s Earnest comes true again here, in Gwendolen’s prescient remark: “I pity a woman married to a man called John. She will never know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”) Nettie tends toward passive-aggressiveness, a mode of behavior that reaches its apex when she disappears for twelve hours, leaving father and son (and her own mother, who communicates her anxiety by telephone) frantically worried about her whereabouts. The father, John, is just plain aggressive, and as stubborn as any Irishman (his metaphor, not mine). The son is no match for these manipulative, self-destructive parents, but he has actually learned a certain amount of such strategic ploys from them. His way of operating is to hold out and hold out until he has achieved the desired disruptive effect and then to reverse himself and let the other two drown in their own bile. Ugly.

Gilroy is enough of a dramatist to keep this going for over two hours, but the mechanism can be heard creaking and groaning once in a while. It takes three very good performances to distract us from the bien faite dramaturgy of the play. (Today, the comprehensive put-down of dramaturgy of this kind is to label it “linear.”) Horowitz says he waited for some time to put the play on, until he could cast it adequately (of course, he himself had known for years that it was worth reviving). In any case, he has casted more than adequately, with Robert Walsh and Judith McIntyre, both well-known Boston area actors, in the roles of the parents and David Hale, a promising MFA candidate at the Actors’ Studio Drama School, as the returning non-hero Timmy. The direction by a Boston-area director, Eric C. Engel, is crisp and sure, and consistently sympathetic.

And therein lies the problem with this play. The real reason Gilroy’s play does not match Salesman is that Gilroy is ultimately a sentimentalist. His purpose is to make us love and forgive these awful people despite or because (finally, it doesn’t matter) they are so awful. The ending — the father’s wry, face-saving acceptance of his son’s precipitate departure — says it all: it elicits a knowing smile and a hearty chuckle from the audience. We can see they’ve been through a really tough time, but they are going to be all right. Timmy will move in with his former classmate in a cold-water flat on 22nd Street, and things will calm down a lot. Gilroy has sacrificed the responsibility of dealing with Timmy’s parents’ profound disaffection in favor of a heart-warming ending. This is decidedly not what Miller does in the climax or, for that matter, the epilogue of Death of A Salesman, where we see — in Miller’s solid mid-West but apposite metaphor — the “chickens come home to roost.” There is a huge difference between sympathetic engagement with the hero of a tragedy – Miller elicits such sympathy in abundance — and the cheaper, dime-store sentiment (“Oh, these poor people; they’re just like us”) that Gilroy finally attempts to extract from us. He disguises his purpose rather well for much of the play, by showing us just how ugly, venal, self-deluding, and emotionally deprived his subjects really are. Here, at the cusp of the twenty-first century, we tend to think how badly these people need a therapist. (We of course understand the dynamics of mutual slaughter in families in ways that the poor benighted adults of the sixties were only beginning to discover.)

But what we end up with is a feeling of having been cheated. A more experimental director might have tried working for much less sympathy for these three people than the playwright’s text would seem to be angling for. It would take a determined director to bring that kind of latter-day quasi-Brechtian objectivity to bear on this resolutely rosy-eyed play. (The title refers to the roses the son gives his mother and allows the father to claim was his idea.) But maybe that kind of deliberately disaffected approach could work, even through the smiles of the ending: we would need to be made to understand that the distance of 22nd Street from the West Bronx was not going to be enough to solve this family’s problems. A tall order, for directors and actors, but one worth attempting. As it is, this production, skillfully mounted though it is, ends up being a sort of museum piece, a charming act of homage to the halcyon sixties, when almost anything could be rescued if your idealism was potent enough. Too bad, now that we stand on the far side of 9/11, that such sentiments seem so “old hat.” For all the hoopla about this play, it has not worn well.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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