Review: Masterful Rees Heads THE WINSLOW BOY
There's a famous old vaudeville sketch about a poor schlep who gets arrested for "expectorating on the street." He's willing to pay the two dollar fine and be done with the matter, but his lawyer won't hear of it. After being found guilty in court, the lawyer insists on filing an appeal, letting the felon spend months in jail waiting for his case while expenses pile up, his business goes bankrupt, his family is disgraced and his health is ruined. All the while the schlep keeps pleading with his lawyer to just, "Pay the two dollars! Pay the two dollars!"
Leave it to the Brits to come up with a classier way to tell that story, though I don't know if playwright Terence Rattigan attended much American vaudeville. His 1946 drama, The Winslow Boy, a fascinating tale of a father sacrificing all in order to clear his son's reputation, is actually based on true events from the early years of the 20th Century.
Director Lindsay Posner's swift and riveting production comes to Broadway from London's Old Vic. The entirely recast Roundabout staging revolves around a masterful performance by Roger Rees as ailing family patriarch Andrew Winslow. It's a study in subtle details as he valiantly keeps a brave and noble face during the two years the story covers as his health deteriorates, his judgment is questioned and everything he's worked for seems to be crumbling at the latter stages of his life.
All of the action takes place in the Winslow drawing room (the handsome set and costume designs are by Peter McKintosh), where family conversations are occasionally peppered with concerns over England possibly going to war against Germany's Kaiser. 14-year-old cadet Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) waits nervously for his father to come home, holding a note from the Royal Naval College requesting he be withdrawn from the school. It seems he was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order and was found guilty at an enquiry held, as was customary, without the benefit of representation nor the knowledge of his family.
Though Andrew seems strict and cold on the surface, he believes the boy when he says he's innocent and, despite a tight family budget, arranges for the highly sought-after barrister Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) to take on the case, which would involve convincing the House of Commons to give him a new trial. The lengthy process proves a serious drain on Andrew's health and reputation, as the case becomes national news and the family is publicly criticized in the press for taking up the government's valuable time when war seems imminent. The financial drain severely affects the futures of Ronnie's two older siblings.
Standing out in the excellent ensemble is Charlotte Parry as Andrew's suffragette daughter, Catherine; a passionate activist whose engagement is endangered by her insistence to fight in her little brother's defense. There is an understated attraction between her and Morton, who believes the suffragette movement is doomed to fail. Nivola's crisply businesslike performance as the barrister is highlighted by a breathtaking scene that ends the first act, where he forcefully demonstrates what the boy might have to endure as a witness. It's capped by one hell of a curtain line.
Michael Cumpsty is charming in a goofy way as the family friend who has been carrying a torch for Charlotte for quite some time, and there are fine contributions by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Andrew's wife, determined to stay strong through the ordeal, and Henny Russell as their chatty and less-than-competent maid.
Though the play never leaves the Winslow drawing room, Rattigan did a remarkable job of keeping suspense and tensions high throughout the evening with detailed descriptions of what was happening in court. This is The Winslow Boy's first Broadway revival since initially visiting in 1947 and Posner's crackling production makes you wonder what took so long.