Emotions run deep and wild in this solid revival of Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Subject Was Roses."... Following "On Golden Pond," which transferred from D.C. to [Broadway's] Rialto, producer Jeffrey Finn and director Leonard Foglia have mounted "Roses" for a brief Kennedy Center run and possible afterlife, adding to a recent wave of renewed interest in the play about a son who returns from WWII to discover with new maturity a disturbingly dysfunctional home life.
Finn's production is first-rate in all departments. Foglia has assembled a terrific cast that wrings every ounce of emotion from Gilroy's biting piece. It includes Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey as the mismatched duo and newcomer Steve Kazee as the earnest son thrust into a new conflict.
The marital discord seethes uncontrollably under Foglia's careful direction from the moment the play opens on the Bronx apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Cleary in 1946. Neil Patel's set peeks through the windows of the Clearys' home before unveiling the Spartan kitchen and living room confines.
Pullman's mercurial Irishman is a psychologist's study in anger that touches all bases from passive to violent aggression, with emphasis on ridicule and sarcasm. The character's emotions are never in check as he battles for household supremacy and the affections of his son. Pullman embraces it all in his astute presentation of the loathsome entrepreneur.
Ivey offers a heartwarming performance as the emotionally scarred wife, trapped in a life of spousal subservience and parental devotion. Her character is truly pitiable as she stoically copes with a world of frustrations while unwittingly maintaining the existence of a private hell...
The performance to truly savor is Kazee's role as Timmy, who discovers his manhood in the uncomfortable context of his parents' troubled marriage. As he insists on new respect from them, he seeks to redefine his relationships with both while forging new communications within the household. It is a demanding role that requires great sensitivity and determination, which Kazee pulls off in spades.
THE WASHINGTON TIMES SAYS:
"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... is winning as the son torn between the familiar and the untested.
THE BALTIMORE SUN SAYS:
The Subject Was Roses is about a soldier returning home from war, but it's his parents who are dealing with trauma.
The timeliness of the issue of young military men readjusting to home life may be one reason behind this revival of Frank D. Gilroy's 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. As is evident from director Leonard Foglia's production at Washington's Kennedy Center, however, the play is primarily an old-fashioned domestic drama, not a commentary on war and its aftermath.
When Timmy Cleary comes back to his parents' Bronx apartment, he finds himself in the midst of a battle far more difficult to comprehend than those he fought in World War II. "When I left this house three years ago, I blamed him for everything that was wrong here," Timmy says tells his mother near the end of the play. "When I came home, I blamed you. ... Now I suspect that no one's to blame."...
The well-wrought performances at the Kennedy Center energize the text -- at times, wrenchingly. Watch Judith Ivey transform herself from care-worn, middle-aged Nettie Cleary into a young woman in love when she tells her son what attracted her to his father. It's the middle of the night and Ivey's Nettie sits in an old housecoat. Anxiety and age seem to disappear from her face as she talks about the wit, good looks and fierceness that led her to choose John Cleary.
We also get a glimpse of this younger Nettie earlier in the show, when Steve Kazee's Timmy cheers her up by persuading her to dance with him. In that moment, more than anything Nettie says, Ivey demonstrates the warm bond Nettie feels for her son.
In this opening scene, we realize how Nettie and John compete for Timmy's affection. But their feelings for him spring from opposite poles. Nettie cherishes Timmy because he has turned out to be the "exceptional" son she always knew he was. The pride felt by Bill Pullman's John stems from finding out -- and admitting -- he underestimated his son.
These opposing vantage points are indicative of how distant Nettie and John have grown. Both seek sustenance outside the home and away from each other -- Nettie by helping her mother care for a disabled relative, John in bars and hotels.
An alcoholic given to mean, moody streaks, John could be a mere stereotype. But Pullman depicts him as a man desperate to give as well as receive love, yet thwarted by his own stubbornness and his generation's limited definition of manliness.
In the role of Timmy, Kazee has no problem conveying his character's youth, but he also lets us see this soldier struggling to make sense of his parents' embattled marriage and his place in it.
As a boy, Timmy was often sickly. Returning home as an adult, he quickly becomes ill again (a condition Kazee simulates with pasty verisimilitude). Nettie blames this on alcohol, but as Timmy comes to realize, it's the environment that's toxic.
Director Foglia uses the windowed exterior that descends in front of Neil Patel's set to enclose, and before intermission, to isolate John and Nettie. But more than walls divide this couple. The politics in The Subject Was Roses may be domestic instead of military, but for the victims of the play's marital skirmishes, the effects are still corrosive.
Last season, Foglia's revival of On Golden Pond, starring James Earl Jones, moved from the Kennedy Center to Broadway. Specific plans have not been announced for The Subject Was Roses, but... Pullman, Kazee and especially Ivey deliver performances worthy of a wider audience.
THE NEW YORK TIMES SAYS:
Mr. Gilroy's play won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award...a heartfelt family drama with echoes of Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. In its frank depiction of a man and woman adrift in middle age, consoling themselves for the disappointments of their lives by making life hell for each other, it is certainly capable of striking authentic notes of anger, frustration and despair.
John and Nettie Cleary (Mr. Pullman and Ms. Ivey), a middle-class couple living in the West Bronx, have long since settled into patterns of accommodation and quiet aggression that their son, Timmy (Mr. Kazee), disrupts when he arrives home from the war, transformed from a sickly, scrawny youth into a strapping, newly confident ex-serviceman. The old dynamics are rattled and reordered by the re-entrance into the family fold of a member who can remember the old jokes and songs but not his habitual lines.
Timmy inadvertently sends down a depth charge into the deep well of his parents' mutual misery when he impulsively buys Nettie a dozen roses, then urges his father to take the credit. Mr. Gilroy's perceptive observation of the way this small incident becomes a catalyst for a painful examination of the family pathologies gives the play its power...
Intelligence and care are on abundant display in Mr. Pullman's and Ms. Ivey's performances...
BOB DAVIS FROM WGMS RADIO SAYS:
The Subject Was Roses is a play concerning a breakdown in family relationships. The intensity of the story is brilliantly handled by an excellent cast. This award winning drama is well worth your attention. See it!