by Joe Regan Jr.
TACT/The Actors Company Theatre is dedicated to presenting neglected or rarely produced plays of literary merit. Last season there was an exhilarating revival of Anita Loos’ Happy Birthday that hasn’t been produced in years. The current production is the rarely seen Natural Affection by William Inge. William Inge was one of the most successful playwrights in the Fifties and the Sixties with hits like Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop and The Dark At the Top of the Stairs, all made into successful movies. The first three have been revived on Broadway in the recent past. However, like his friend, Tennessee Williams, his late plays were not commercial successes. One of them was a comedy that closed in a few days: Where’s Daddy. It featured Betty Field, Beau Bridges, and Barbara Dana. A Loss of Roses suffered trouble out of town (Shirley Booth quit and was replaced by Betty Field) and Warren Beatty’s first starring role overshadowed the major theme of the play, the relationship between the mother and her friend (Carol Haney in a dramatic role). It was made into an awful movie entitled “The Stripper.“ It did lead to Beatty playing his first film role, in Inge’s screenplay “Splendor in the Grass,” for which Inge won the Academy Award. Depressed by his failures and his repressed homosexuality, he retreated into alcoholism and committed suicide in 1973. Now, TACT has taken on another of Inge’s late plays that has never been revived before.
Natural Affection opened early in 1963 during a newspaper strike. It starred Kim Stanley, Harry Guardino, Gregory Rozakis, and Tom Bosley. It is about a successful business woman who had an illegitimate child as a teenager and had to put him in an orphanage. When he got out of the orphanage he got involved with criminal kids and was sent to a work camp. In the meantime the woman is in a relationship with a younger man who is postponing marrying her because he wants to have a job that pays more than her supervisor job. In the same building is a successful businessman who is a repressed gay man and his nymphomaniac wife. There are unusual and quite graphic sexual dialogue and scenes, and there is some startling violence on stage. The play features, unusual for the time, scenes about sexual passion, homosexuality, and implied incest.
The cast of TACT’s production could not be better. Although Kathryn Erbe, (extraordinary as Pat Nixon in the Vineyard’s Checkers) is not the physical image nor does she have the Actors Studio naturalism that Stanley possessed, she is thoroughly credible as the successful businesswoman who loves and supports her younger lover and feels guilt over what has happened to the son she abandoned. Always wonderful John Pankow plays the unhappy husband of the neighbor and is quite daring in his big drunk scene! Alec Beard is quite believable and hunky as the younger lover who has cheated in the past with the nymphomaniac (played by Victoria Mack who was so good in the Helen Hayes part in Happy Birthday).
Most of Inge’s plays were set in his native Midwest small communities (Inge was a college professor and newspaper critic). This play is set in Chicago in an old building with spacious apartments although the central trio are in a one bedroom apartment. The boy has come home on a Christmas furlough and wants to stay because he has been beaten by a sadistic guard. A crony from the prison wants him to deliver drugs or become a male prostitute in order to make big money. He doesn’t want to do that, wants to stay with his mother and go to school. He has a knack for designing and woodwork and one of the tender and happy scenes in the play is when he presents his mother with a gift he made for her in his crafts class. On Christmas Eve there are a series of unexpected violent acts and reversals.
Natural Affection is directed seamlessly by Jenn Thompson. Everything that happens on stage seems to be spontaneous and yet there is always a tension of suspense if things will go in another direction. Erbe’s final outburst and choice is shocking and leads to violence that is sad but inevitable.
Natural Affection performances are Tuesdays thru Thursday at 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM through October 26 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42 Street. For tickets call 212 239-6200 or go to www.tactnyc.org