When Alessandro Nivola flaps onto the scene, beady and batlike in a big black Inverness coat, the temperature of The Winslow Boy immediately rises. Until then, it has been a rather cool if compelling light drama, introducing its large themes of justice and right (two different things) through the small talk of people taking tea and sandwiches. Suspense has been maintained less by means of character development than by the sneaky manipulation of information.
We have already learned, for instance, that Ronnie Winslow, a 13-year-old cadet at Osborne Naval College shortly before World War I, has been expelled for allegedly forging and cashing a five-shilling postal order. We have seen how the shame of this unproved atrocity has thrown his upright but slightly shabby middle-class family into chaos. His father, a principled curmudgeon, has decided to do whatever it takes to have his boy exonerated. The stakes and the unlikelihood of his success have been established in discussions with the other family members. (The military being outside the regular court system, his quest will involve a suit against the crown.) But it isn’t until shortly before intermission in the Roundabout’s excellent revival that we even find out what happened. That’s when Nivola, as Sir Robert Morton—who, naturally, is England’s best and most expensive advocate—enters the Winslows’ seen-better-days drawing room. Nose in the air, sniffing for blood or clues, he heatedly examines the terrified boy to decide whether the case is worth taking.
At that moment, you can almost sense the contrary forces at work on a playwright who, in 1946, stood on the wrong side of the precipice as a radical aesthetic change in the theater began to gape before him. In Morton, Rattigan gives us (and Nivola thrillingly fulfills) a ham of a character whose vanity and control of his technique are so complete he might almost seem a villain out of melodrama. (Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the 1947 Broadway premiere, called the role “hokum.”) And yet, as we will learn bit by bit after intermission, there is a deeper life—little of it specified—to this character. If that doesn’t make him a stand-in for the playwright, who as a gay man parceled out his personality only sparingly in his work, it at least makes him an example of the kind of dramaturgy that earned Rattigan the reputation of being the cleverest crafter of British “well-made” plays of the thirties and forties—and also earned him, soon enough, and for the same reason, the disrepute.
But perhaps time, or the quality of the Roundabout’s production—suavely directed by Lindsay Posner and based on his recent mounting of the play at London’s Old Vic—has allowed us to appreciate that kind of dramaturgy once again. Granted, Rattigan is not above employing expositional maids, blank-slate reporters (“When did it all start?”), and enough doors to stock a Marx Brothers stateroom. And because the play is nailed to its one set, all of the decisive plot action (especially the four-year sequence of trials, which become a national obsession) happens offstage or between acts or in accounts narrated aloud by characters reading from newspapers. Even the newfangled telephone rings opportunely, as does the family’s thematically apt name: Win Slow.
Yet there is great pleasure in being handled with authority by a playwright who knows what he’s doing—who can tie the play’s complicated knots behind his back. Before you know it, not only have the protagonists (the son, the father, and Sir Robert) been pulled tightly into the story, but so have the mother (who quails at the financial and spiritual costs of the lawsuits), the older brother (whose tuition at Oxford is at stake), the sister (whose dowry is at stake), her fiancé (whose father does not appreciate the Winslows’ crusade), and the family retainer (who inconveniently loves the sister). All are neatly attached to the pushmi-pullyu plot before a half-hour has elapsed—but not just to the plot. What makes The Winslow Boy feel modern just as often as it feels antique is that its clever mechanics are not Rattigan’s main concern. That’s why he seems almost impatient with them; they are only there so he can get as quickly and saliently as possible to his deeper interest in the way individual characters embody timeless questions.
Rattigan signals this interest by making the original offense so piffling and its consequences so preposterously huge. (By the end, offstage newspaper boys are calling out headlines about the case.) He admits that justice is sometimes a small thing, a matter of personal pride; after all, with England on the verge of war, why should the Navy be worrying about postal orders? (Notably, Rattigan, who based the story on an actual case from 1908, shifted the setting to 1914.) Still, large matters of right are sometimes bound up in small matters of justice, which may therefore serve as canaries in the coal mine of moral danger. If the Navy can deny Ronnie a fair trial, what else can a government deny to anyone it chooses? As such, the philosophical center of the play is neither the boy (who is just as happy at his new school and skips the final day of the trial to go to the movies) nor his father (who wants only a good verdict) but Catherine, the feminist sister, who volunteers in the woman’s suffrage movement and sees the case in the larger context of endangered rights and liberties. In the touching and ambiguous final scene, perfectly played by Nivola and Charlotte Parry, Rattigan all but re-titles the play The Winslow Girl.
Quick and confident characterizations, along with a very delicate balancing of them, are needed to keep a play so full of contrary energies from pulling apart; the Roundabout’s 2011 Rattigan outing, Man and Boy, suffered from a marvelous but overwhelming central performance by Frank Langella. Here, despite Nivola’s bravura, the fireworks are better distributed, with Roger Rees, as the curmudgeon, mostly keeping in check his eagerness to amuse. Instead, he carefully delineates the steps along the path of the father’s crisis, from gleeful chin-first aggression to obsession to exhaustion to resignation. And Michael Cumpsty, looking like a walking toothache, turns in a beautifully modulated comic performance as the nice man who will never get his girl. Quickly and piercingly he makes it clear that every person’s disappointment is the world’s.
And that’s what Rattigan, seeing the Angry Young Men’s writing on the wall, insisted on dramatizing. Maybe it’s all he knew how to do. Atkinson in 1947 complained that once the set-up of The Winslow Boy is accomplished, the playwright “begins to emerge as not so much a dramatist as a play contriver who is devoting his skill to arranging scenes that are effective in the theater.” Is that such a bad thing? “Well-made” may not be enough, but it’s not, on the other hand, an insult. Technique, though not sufficient, is still necessary. As Rattigan has the mother (nicely played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) complain of their minister: “What’s the use of being good, if you’re inaudible?”
The Winslow Boy is at the American Airlines Theater through December 1.