One suspects that playwright Frank D. Gilroy is probably quite fed up with hearing his 1964 play “The Subject was Roses” _ Tony awards, Pulitzer prizes and all _ sniffed off as a poor man’s “Death of a Salesman.” And, yes, watching a couple of pros like Martin Sheen and Frances Conroy go at it in the revival of “Roses” _ co-produced by Center Theatre Group and Sheen’s Estevez Sheen Productions _ does indeed make you wonder what the two headliners would make of Willy and Linda Loman. (Here’s betting they’d blow the lid off the parts)
Sheen is, of course, inextricably tied to Gilroy’s three-hander, having created the role of returning solider Timmy for Broadway and for the film version. That he’s back on the stage 46 years later playing the father, John Cleary, is a nice bit of full circle symmetry.
You also gather, watching Neil Pepe’s serviceable and occasionally exciting revival at the Mark Taper Forum, that the focus of “The Subject of Roses” tilts and pivots significantly depending now how it’s cast. Is this, ultimately, the tale of a young man’s boy-to-adult realization about his parents’ failings or is Gilroy shining his dramatic light on the husband and wife themselves? Or, most significantly, on the enigmatic mother, Nettie Cleary?
Sheen, so spectacularly handsome in his youth, might easily have tipped the balance toward Timmy in the original version. The gruff charm, laced with a certain bullheadedness that Sheen employed on “The West Wing” is put to good effect in the actor’s take on John Cleary. Nor is the actor playing Timmy in Pepe’s production _ “The Hurt Locker’s” Brian Geraghty _ in any danger of upstaging his parents or otherwise commandeering the tale. Geraghty has modest charisma, does a more than passable drunk scene and possesses long spindly arms that he can’t seem to contain.
The production’s real winner _ and it’s by no means by default _ is Conroy, an actress who always has something going on beneath the surface. In a play this stuffed with subtext, _ what Gilroy leaves unsaid and unanswered _ a performer of Conroy’s shrewd understatement shines like 1,000 watts. Roses to her, above all.
Our scene is a living room and kitchen, side by side in a middle class Brooklyn apartment. Set designer Walt Spangler dresses the Cleary’s abode with few traces of finery. John Cleary, we’re to understand, is a bit of a hoarder where personal finance is concerned.
The living room still contains the remnants of Timmy’s welcome home party of the year before. It’s 1946, and the 21-year-old Timmy has returned from three years of duty without a scratch. Not surprising, since the boy _ a budding writer _ was anything but a gung-ho soldier. Still, his parents John and Nettie (Sheen and Conroy respectively) couldn’t be more pleased to have him home. His presence distracts them, momentarily, from their drudgery and marital discord _ including Dad’s infidelities.
A still adjusting Timmy is thrown somewhere in the abyss between peacekeeper, molifier and counselor, none of which come easily because his parents (mom especially) don’t really reveal much about what’s broken. As the human wishbone, Timmy can’t help but irk someone. If he goes to the ballgame with dad, it means foregoing the daily visit to his grandmother and crippled cousin that his mom arranged. Timmy’s got charm to burn and some pretty decent skills of diplomacy, but he’s out of his depths in this home.
When he left, we’re to understand, Timmy was a boy. He returns to view his warring parents through the eyes of a man, a potential writer no less. He can shrug off the barbs flung at him by his changeably critical father (“snot nosed child of privilege, you had it easy!”), but only for so long. His mother gives him no help, no perspective. She’s fighting her own war. (Boy is she!) And Timmy’s advice, that his dad take credit for a dozen roses he (the son) bought his mom during a guys’ day out, proves the match to the gunpowder.
Director Pepe _ who runs the Atlantic Theater Company and frequently directs the works of David Mamet _ has a surprisingly deft feel for this terrain. His production eases gradually rather than hastily to the explosions which a “Roses” neophyte might not see coming. Conroy’s Nettie, marshalling her bitterness and proving to be anything but a weakling is quietly devastating. The character, we are to understand, married John Cleary because, of all Nettie’s suitor, Clearly was least like her gallant and gentlemanly father. Thus Conroy’s fury over the roses subterfuge seems as much directed at her own stupidity at being gulled as it was at the deception itself.
Sheen (dapperly costumed by Laura Bauer) mixes affability with true viciousness. The former, one suspects, comes more easily. With a different actor, Cleary’s bitterness and jealousy at Timmy come through in tiny glimpses even when the two men are drinking buddies. Not so much here. When Cleary senior arrives at the breakfast table and starts baiting Timmy over offenses both minor and imagined, it plays more like Sheen having gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.
Appeal is no crime and, truth be told, this production is as much Conroy’s show as it is Nettie Cleary’s play. It does indeed make one wish for another crackerjack revival of “Death of a Salesman,” but it also makes us see that other domestic dramas have strong legs as well.
“The Subject was Roses” plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m.; Sun.; through March 21 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $20-$65. (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.