A Family Affair At Bay Street Theater

John Slattery, Talia Balsam and son Harry Slattery light up the stage in The Subject Was Roses.
John Slattery, Talia Balsam and Harry Slattery. Photo courtesy of Bay Street Theater

By Regina Weinreich

Real-life couple, actors Talia Balsam and John Slattery, who were married in the wildly popular AMC series Mad Men as Mona and Roger Sterling, play another wife and husband as Nettie and John Cleary in a revival of Frank D. Gilroy’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Subject Was Roses, at Bay Street Theater from May 28 to June 16. The duo will be joined by their son, Harry Slattery, as Timmy Cleary, just returned to the Bronx from fighting in World War II. You could call this three-hander a family affair, or, as Balsam says during a recent three-way interview on Zoom, “a happy accident.”

“This is a unique position for all of us—a good play, good parts,” says Balsam from her New York City apartment, with Harry in the next room chiming in, “We did a reading at Bay Street, and a family friend, [actor] Victor Garber, suggested we read for director Scott Wittman.” 

“Victor discovered Harry,” says John from a Zoom frame. Just a month before rehearsals, papa Slattery was on the road, 148 kilometers from Bratislava en route to Budapest, where he is filming a new movie, Nuremberg. “I’m playing someone who is housing the Nazi high command as they await the Nuremberg trials. I went to Poland for the perfect research trip—to see Auschwitz.”

But it’s Harry he wants to spotlight: “Harry can act! This is the perfect part for a young actor: well-written, funny and it gets nasty. While I’ve been away, they’ve been reading, and I get texts saying how great they both are. Scotty is so excited to work with a young person, to show him the ropes.” 

Even on Zoom, it’s clear Harry, 25, has a resonant, deep, stage-ready voice. He says, laughing, “I’m putting it on for you now.” Wittman, he adds, gave him one note: “Squeakier!”

In The Subject Was Roses, Timmy returns home from his service during World War II. While he seems to vindicate himself in his father’s eyes for surviving the war, his drinking and cursing disturb his mother. Though parents John and Nettie seem to be happy, soon old emotional wounds and unresolved marital problems resurface. Caught in the middle, Timmy feels responsible for their squabbling, but can see no way to resolve their problems. 

Says Balsam, herself the child of actors (Joyce Van Patten and Martin Balsam): “It’s a period piece, but it’s the internal lives, the alcoholism, the family dynamic of a boy watching his parents in a dysfunctional situation. Someone who wants to get out and make his own way is universal.”

Not that The Slattery family dynamic suffers these issues. They did a cameo in executive producer Tina Fey’s series Girls5eva, in which Balsam sang a song based on her own experience as the proud mom to her own son, “New York Lonely Boy.” That would be Harry, celebrated as an only son. 

Family loyalty always takes priority. During their Mad Men marriage, says John, while reading scripts in bed, he realized that Mona was being cut. “My character leaves her. I knew it was not the best of news for her. Mona and Roger had more scenes, and should have gone on longer. In Roses, we are really bouncing off each other.”

John is modest about his directing efforts: “They gave me a shot on Mad Men probably because I am rarely at a loss for an opinion.” He’s helmed feature films too, including last summer’s hilarious Maggie Moore(s): “A man starts it off by accidentally on purpose killing his wife,” he explains. Pals Fey and Jon Hamm are in it; she, a Peeping Tom neighbor, he, a local cop. “I like acting and directing,” John says. “It’s fun to be creative and do what challenges you.” 

Out East, the challenge may be surfing. John is often seen working the waves in Montauk’s Ditch Plains. Balsam doesn’t surf: “I just like to be out there enjoying nature, paddleboarding, biking, tennis.” 

And now there’s the added plus of the show in Sag Harbor, close to home in Springs, and the excitement of working with Harry. “They even gave him his own apartment,” says Balsam. Aha, finally, a point of rebellion. Says Harry: “It’s insane to live with Mom and Dad and work together all day.” The first thing he asked his parents was, Do I have to live with you?
The Subject Was Roses runs from May 28 to June 16 at Bay Street Theater; baystreet.org