Bernard Madoff's massive multi-decade fraud was shocking indeed, but hardly new.
That sad fact is instantly recognizable in a timely new Broadway revival of Terence Rattigan's "Man and Boy" that opened Sunday at the American Airlines Theatre starring Frank Langella.
Langella plays an arrogant, manipulative financial giant whose elaborate Ponzi scheme is unraveling, a character that Rattigan based on a real-life business man during the Depression but seems to presage Madoff.
The Roundabout Theatre Company has cannily chosen to honor the centenary of Rattigan's birth with the first Broadway revival of the play since the original flopped in London and on Broadway in 1963. Director Maria Aitken — who also directed a revival of the play in London in 2005 starring David Suchet — has reconstructed it, using some earlier drafts.
What emerges is a somewhat clunky and sometimes limp seven-character play about the complicated relationship between fathers and sons that gets a surge of electricity whenever Langella — at his fussy, oily best — appears. Yet so strongly does the actor loom that he threatens to destabilize the production.
Langella plays Gregor Antonescu, who has fled to the grubby Greenwich Village apartment of his estranged son, Basil, as authorities circle his financial empire. He needs to pull off one big deal to keep his world from crumbling. His son — who he admits is his "conscience" — is just a means to an end.
"Love is a commodity I can't afford," the older man says.
Antonescu needs the co-operation of a secretly homosexual businessman (a wonderful Zach Grenier) and begins by sweet talking his way through the various holes in his balance sheet to his rival's accountant (Brian Hutchison). He then manipulates the other businessman into believing that his 23-year-old son is his lover — and then pimps him out, a moment so shocking that Laurence Olivier refused to perform it.
All this should produce an explosive showdown with Antonescu's son, who five years previously had fired a gun at his father and stormed out when realizing that daddy dearest was just a common swindler. Basil has hidden his past, changed his name and become a piano player in a nightclub.
But Basil (Adam Driver, working hard in an underwritten part) is frighteningly passive, pathetically seeking his father's love even in the face of all the lies and manipulation. His backbone disappears and he develops a stammer in his father's presence.
Langella even mocks his son for his endless admiration: "Dear God, what a boy! Isn't there anything I can do to kill it?" His son responds: "No. Not anything. But why do you have to try?"
If the playwright was trying to tease out the emotionally damaged terrain of sons who cannot stop looking up to their flawed fathers, the result is not exactly what Rattigan intended: You may begin rooting for Antonescu, a devil perhaps, but one who is imbued with Langella's charisma and grace. He has the best lines, after all, and he's a force of nature, while all around him is meekishness. As the other characters slowly desert him, Antonescu does what he always does: takes charge.
The rest of the supporting cast is made up of Francesca Faridany, who plays Antonescu's wife with chatty aplomb; Virginia Kull, who nicely plays Basil's girlfriend; and Michael Siberry, who is wonderfully officious as Antonescu's assistant.
The single set by Derek McLane — a grubby basement apartment complete with hissing radiator — is marred somewhat by the attempt to carve out a bedroom separate from the living room. The walls, though, simply get lost in the layout and the eye gets confused.
Aitken and the cast do an admirable job — Langella in his final scene even shows he does indeed care about his son by lingering over a photograph of the two together — but Rattigan's story has an unfinished quality to it. The playwright has done a masterful job of creating a monster, but not given us a reason to hate him.