Peter D. Kramer

Review: Man, boy, spider

In Reviews on October 10, 2011 at 4:00 am

Forty-second Street is infested with spiders these days.

Of course, there’s that web-slinging comic-book crimefighter (and his half-dozen gravity-defying body doubles) wowing the crowds at the Foxwoods Theater in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

But the spider who really turns the blood cold is a couple of doors down at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater in the Broadway revival of English playwright Terence Rattigan’s 1961 play “Man and Boy,” which opened last night.

He’s Gregor Antonescu, a captain of commerce, a wily Romanian whose biography proclaims a rags-to-riches story.

(But you must consider the source.)

Antonescu is a fine addition to a rogue’s gallery accumulated by the Tony-winner Frank Langella, an actor who has made a habit of breathing spine-tingling life into characters we love to hate: Nixon in “Frost/Nixon,” the oily Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov in “Fortune’s Fool,” even the blood-thirsty count in “Dracula” in the late ’70s.

Antonescu’s bite is much more subtle than the count’s, but just as powerful.

It’s 1934 and these are “anxious days” for Antonescu, who shows up at his estranged son’s Greenwich Village basement apartment, in a jam. The newspapers declare he’s bankrupt, on the run, about to be indicted.

Of course, he doesn’t arrive unannounced. He has a man for that — and much more — in the efficient Sven Johnson, played with a creepy but cool air by Michael Siberry (“Death Takes a Holiday”). When Johnson arrives in the apartment of Basil Anthony (the smart Adam Driver), a sometime piano player with an actress girlfriend Carol Penn (the lovely, natural Virginia Kull), it’s the equivalent of identifying a cozy corner for the spider’s spinning to begin. Before long, Antonescu has swept in, icily reuniting with his embittered son Vasily (Adam’s birth name, since anglicized).

By way of introduction, father schools actress on the basic issue at hand.

“The economy is suffering from liquidity and confidence crises,” he declares. Money is tight, a sort of hardening of the economic arteries.

Sound familiar?

These nights in the American Airlines Theatre, there are plenty of knowing glances and rueful chuckles as line after 50-year-old line lands on receptive if wearied-by-the-headlines ears. Maria Aitken directs with a light touch, knowing when to let moments linger and when to speed things along.

The pater unfamilias needs a hideout in which to conduct a little business, to correct his minor liquidity setback. Basil, whose childhood stutter has returned with its root cause, is powerless to say no. Before long, the dingy flat is the site of high-level Wall Street negotiation — or, more correctly, trap-setting.

Watch as Langella puts those tights-clad spiders to shame, spinning lies into elaborate justifications into the branches of a deal, dispatching a sweaty accountant David Beeston (the funny Brian Hutchinson) and then his high-powered boss Mark Herries (the excellent Zach Grenier) with a bit of dirt that changes the entire temperature of the room and tips the scales in the Romanian’s favor.

If Grenier’s performance is notable for its arc, and it is — he strides in a proud butterfly and is left a bloodless shell after getting caught in Antonescu’s web — Langella’s is remarkable for its nuance and, beg pardon, its economy: a glance, a raised eyebrow, the upturn of a villainous smile.

As he drains his prey of its lifeblood, Antonescu’s powers rise.

“I’m a fighter,” he crows. “I brought roads to Yugoslavia, electricity to Hungary.”

Exactly how he achieved those feats is a matter of some debate — and, no doubt, future government investigation.

There are others caught in the web, of course, but that matters little to Antonescu. There is collateral damage in the world of deals and steals, he says.

His British ex-typist wife — Countess Antonescu, played broadly by Francesa Faridany — is part of that damage. As is Basil.

But Basil is still his father’s son, and Driver portrays a tenderness, an innocence, that is endearing — right to the rather unsatisfying end, when the web claims another casualty.

“Man and Boy,” American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., through Nov. 27. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. $67 to $117, 212-719-1300. Go to the Roundabout Theatre’s website.

Joan Marcus photo: Frank Langella as Gregor Antonescu.

Did you know? The original Broadway run of “Man and Boy” opened — with Charles Boyer as Antonescu — opened 10 days before the Kennedy assassination and ran 54 performances.

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