- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

“Say it with flowers” wouldn’t work for the Cleary clan. It would be too obscene.

A bunch of ordinary store-bought red roses cause a rupture in an already ulcerated family in Frank D. Gilroy’s 1964 slice-of-life drama, “The Subject Was Roses,” sturdily revived at the Kennedy Center under the direction of Leonard Foglia and featuring a sublime cast headed by Bill Pullman as the tough, resentful patriarch John Cleary.

As his wife, Nettie (Judith Ivey) states during a bitterly illuminating wee-hours conversation with her conflicted son Timmy (Steve Kazee), the best part of John Cleary is seen in public. He’s the kind of blustery, big-handshake-and-winning-smile kind of guy that shines at the office, in the local watering hole, or chatting up the priest after Sunday Mass.

At home, John is a different matter: a seething mass of anger and accreted disappointments, mainly his relationship with his cheerless, martyred wife and his only son. He’s a dirty fighter, using the verbal equivalent of brass knuckles and numchucks against his family, who are armed only with words in their out-of-nowhere skirmishes with him.

Mr. Pullman, who is known for fluffier roles in popular movies, is a revelation as John, the man’s man who is seemingly solid but tightly tamps down so much below the surface. There’s the spring in his step of a seasoned pugilist as he verbally and physically spars with Timmy, the son he always underestimates. Their scenes together resonate with belligerent energy, the ugliness of unfinished business.

John has been trying for years to drive a wedge between the seemingly unshakable alliance between mother and son. Everything comes to a head when Timmy returns home after three years in the Army. World War II is over and Timmy doesn’t particularly feel like a hero or even a good soldier. He did what he was told and survived, and now all he wants to do is drink.

After dispensing with the niceties of a “welcome home” party, the Cleary family settles down to what they do best — fight. Turns out that Timmy didn’t miss much while he was away except a burgeoning estrangement between his parents. They live in close quarters — a Bronx brownstone apartment in which Neil Patel gives us an uncozy, pigeon’s-eye view through a series of smudged windows — but there is no intimacy, only unspoken antagonism and a feeling of stifling stasis.

Timmy’s return — and his insistence that John take credit for the roses — sets off a fusillade of arguments that fail to clear the air, but rather dirty it for all time. After a late-night showdown, the family must decide whether to keep going as usual or forge a shaky new existence.

If John is the bullish force in “The Subject Was Roses,” the character of Nettie represents the unfortunate repository of all that misguided energy.

As brought to crushed life by Miss Ivey, Nettie embodies the seeping death of an unhappy marriage. The only time she springs to life is with her son, when he dances with her in the living room and the years fall away on the faded carpet as she Lindy Hops with girlish abandon. In fact, Nettie and Timmy act more like sweethearts than mother and son; theirs is a flirtatious, courting relationship.

The part of Timmy has been a springboard for young actors, notably Martin Sheen, who starred in the original Broadway production, and also in the 1968 film version with Jack Albertson as the father and Patricia Neal as Nettie. Mr. Kazee may not set off the sparks that Mr. Sheen did, but he is winning as the son torn between the familiar and the untested.

Mr. Gilroy’s play is heavy on the dialogue, which is gutsy with bursts of unexpected humor in Act One but gets blowzy and heavy in the second half. By the time Miss Ivey gets her big middle-of-the-night confession scene — which she underplays with an exquisite sense of mercy — the audience is a little punch-drunk from all the cross words and battling. The subject may be roses, but it doesn’t have to be talked to death.

***

WHAT: “The Subject Was Roses” by Frank D. Gilroy

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays; 1:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 29.

TICKETS: $25 to $78

PHONE: 202/467-4600MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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