'The Subject Was Roses' Is All About Family - 27 East

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‘The Subject Was Roses’ Is All About Family

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From left, John Slattery, his wife Talia Balsam and son Harry Slattery star in Bay Street Theater's production of

From left, John Slattery, his wife Talia Balsam and son Harry Slattery star in Bay Street Theater's production of "The Subject Was Roses." TRICIA BARON

Talia Balsam and her son, Harry Slattery, during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's production of

Talia Balsam and her son, Harry Slattery, during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's production of "The Subject Was Roses." TRICIA BARON

From left, Harry Slattery (as Timmy Cleary), Talia Balsam (as Nettie Cleary) and John Slattery (as John Cleary) in Bay Street Theater's production of

From left, Harry Slattery (as Timmy Cleary), Talia Balsam (as Nettie Cleary) and John Slattery (as John Cleary) in Bay Street Theater's production of "The Subject Was Roses." LENNY STUCKER

authorAnnette Hinkle on May 27, 2024

Bay Street Theater’s mainstage season opens this week with a Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play that is truly a family affair, in every sense of the word.

Frank D. Gilroy’s “The Subject Was Roses” is set in the Bronx in 1946, and tells the story of husband and wife John and Nettie Cleary who welcome their only child, a son, Timmy, home from W.W.II, only to discover that the household dynamics have shifted substantially during the young man’s time away. As each member of the family confronts their past and present, unspoken tensions rise to the surface, realigning alliances, their understanding of themselves and their relationship with one another.

“The Subject Was Roses” had its Broadway debut in 1964, and four years later, became a film featuring Patricia Neal, Jack Albertson and, as Timmy, Martin Sheen. This new production at Bay Street is directed by Tony Award-winner Scott Wittman and it stars a real life family — John Slattery and his wife, Talia Balsam, as John and Nettie Cleary, and their son, 24-year-old Harry Slattery, as Timmy.

Though the storyline of this play seems very straightforward, on paper anyway, as Wittman explained in a recent interview during rehearsals, the plot runs quite deep.

“The son comes home an adult and he has a new perspective,” Wittman said. “It’s about their three relationships, what divides them and what unites them, and it’s not dissimilar from now, like when someone goes away to college and comes back. It feels timely to me.”

Wittman went on to describe the script as very economical and straightforward without a lot of waste, but with a whole story beneath it.

“At an emotional and personal level, there’s a certain loss of innocence and how we want to keep a child and preserve childhood, to the point where they almost become a parent in a way,” he added.

“What’s great about it is, it’s such a great ride, but it’s short. Each act is only 40 minutes and it’s a fun ride for the actors,” added Wittman, who, with this production, is directing the play for the first time. “It’s something that has always been in my head. I had seen this play done maybe 20 years ago, so this is the 60th anniversary of it — but I believe this is the first time it’s been done with a real family.”

In terms of that real family, though both John Slattery and Talia Balsam come to “The Subject Was Roses” with extensive acting resumes — he played Roger Sterling, a senior partner of Sterling Cooper advertising agency, in “Mad Men,” while she played Sterling’s wife, Mona, in the series — the production at Bay Street will represent the first major stage role for their son.

“I studied art in college. This last year, when I agreed to do this play it was a pivot for me, I thought, ‘Let’s do and see if I enjoy it,’” explained Harry Slattery. “I think I’m ideally going to stay the course, providing it works out, and this play goes well.

“It’s very exciting,” he added. “But we haven’t gotten in front of an audience yet.”

“We’re lucky to be able to do it together,” Balsam said.

Interestingly enough, this may be Harry Slattery’s first theatrical production, but it’s not his first time on the Bay Street stage. In fact, it was the reading of a different play that led to the idea of casting the family in “The Subject Was Roses,” when, just over a year ago, they appeared together in a reading of Leslie Ayvazian’s “Another Lovely Day” as part of Bay Street’s New Works Festival. That three-character play takes place in a suburban living room near New York City in the wake of 9/11 as a husband and wife debate current events and how they relate to their 17-year-old son.

“A friend of ours saw the play when we did the reading and was surprised, having not seen Harry act,” John Slattery explained. “He knew Scott wanted to do ‘The Subject Was Roses’ and realized he could do it in this configuration.”

“[My friend] had seen that reading and raved about the chemistry between them,” added Wittman. “I pulled the play off the shelf and I brought it to them.”

“It’s an emotional story,” he continued. “When it was done before with different actors it didn’t have a united chemistry. But this is already built in with this real-life family, which I’m very fortunate to have as a director. It adds a lot. It is a play essentially about love, there’s a lot of that on the stage. The chemistry is palpable.”

“Scott describes it as a play about people that don’t know how to say I love you,” noted John Slattery. “It’s more common to hear it nowadays, but I don’t think families that are dysfunctional and not able to communicate is novel.

“It’s an evergreen theme from every side,” he added. “For all that happens in the play, it’s simply written. Speaking for ourselves, when we read it, it made sense to do it. All three parts are good for actors and age-wise, we are more or less suited to it. It wasn’t a giant leap to imagine doing it.”

There are also similarities on the surface level, as Harry Slattery noted, including that, like the play, he is an only child in a two-parent household.

“We talked about it for a while after the first time we read it, and it was at least a month or two before we agreed to do it,” he said.

“I think what’s most relevant are the relationships,” Balsam added. “They are not the same as our personal ones, but it’s the same personal themes.”

And unlike the fictional Clearys in “The Subject Was Roses,” who can’t manage to find the courage to say “I love you” to one another, the real life family portraying them on stage has no problem saying those words.

“It’s pretty diametrically opposite to what we have in our house, which is why I find it interesting,” said Harry Slattery.

“That’s why we’re able to do this,” added Balsam. “It doesn’t hit too close to home.”

“I think it hits because it’s well written,” John Slattery said. “The emotion of the scenes hit because you take a running start at it. It’s effective, not because it’s revealing in our own relationships, but because it's a well-written and constructed play.”

And though this might be Harry Slattery’s first role, Wittman is happy to report that he’s holding his own on stage with his parents.

“Harry is such a good actor, and now he really looks like Corporal Cleary. He’s exceptional and I’m very proud of him,” said Wittman. “I also have an incredible design team , I wanted it to feel like an Edward Hopper painting, both the palette and tone.

“This play is so simple, but so much is said underneath it,” he added. “It’s a play where nothing happens — but everything happens.”

“The Subject Was Roses” began with previews at Bay Street on May 28, and opens with a red carpet premiere this Saturday, June 1, at 8 p.m. Performances with talk backs will be offered on June 4 and June 11, and the play runs through June 16. Tickets start at $45 at baystreet.org, 631-725-9500 or the box office on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.

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