'The Country House': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Blythe Danner and Sarah Steele in "The Country House"
It might be checkout time for Chekhov updates

Blythe Danner plays a veteran actress whose family gathers in the Berkshires in Donald Margulies' contemporary homage to Anton Chekhov

Timing is everything. Donald Margulies respectfully raids the Chekhovian thematic pantry in The Country House, which arrives on Broadway in an elegant production staged with customary polish by Daniel Sullivan and starring Blythe Danner in a role that overlaps with her own professional history. But coming in the wake of Christopher Durang's far more illuminating contemporary riff on the Russian master, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, seriously undercuts the usefulness of this engaging, if rather safe, middlebrow entertainment.

Appropriating elements drawn primarily from The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, Margulies' Chekhov excursion is a vast improvement on the lame-duck derivation of Sharr White's turgid The Snow Geese, which played this same Manhattan Theatre Club venue last season. But for all its diverting banter, heated emotional vivisection and tender resolutions, this is a comedy-drama with no edge or lingering aftertaste. It's mildly amusing, then it's moderately affecting, and then it's over.

Durang’s livewire comedy won the 2013 Tony Award for best play and is currently the most-produced American work on the U.S. regional theater circuit. What made it so memorable was that it remained true to the writer's signature absurdist vernacular while creating modern Chekhovian types who were either asking themselves or avoiding the same questions that plagued the Russian playwright's characters a century earlier. The hundred-year divide notwithstanding, these figures were still wrestling with their insularity in a world spinning too fast for them to keep up. Their resistance to change ranged from disdain to despondence to terror, but they slowly came around to the shared realization that the solace of the past is at best a tenuous refuge.

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Margulies, by contrast, meticulously draws 21st century parallels to Chekhov's characters and situations and then fails to do anything interesting with them, beyond exploring standard-issue family frictions, romantic yearnings and professional anxieties. The playwright sets up his own enclave of privilege, but while its inhabitants are brought together by grief, there never seems to be much at stake for them. Nor is there a cohesive worldview in which to contextualize their individual or collective conflicts, such as they are. The thankless exception is depressed Elliot (Eric Lange), the stymied actor-turned-aspiring playwright who is more or less a composite of Chekhov's Vanya and Konstantin.

As the title indicates, the setting is a summerhouse in the Berkshires, designed in subdued upscale comfort by John Lee Beatty and loaded with memories both pleasurable and painful. It belongs to Elliot's mother, revered stage and screen actress Anna Patterson (Danner). The vainglorious Arkadina of the piece, she has summoned her family and friends to help her through the first anniversary since the death of her beloved daughter Kathy, another actress of uncommon beauty and talent who succumbed to cancer at 41. Anna also needs help running lines for her return to the stage in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Mrs. Warren's Profession.

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Among the guests is Kathy's widowed husband Walter Keegan (David Rasche), a once-brilliant theater director who has become rich and famous making Hollywood franchise movies for 15-year-old boys. His decision to bring along Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), another actress, doesn't sit well with his acerbic daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), who sees her father's Porsche and his young girlfriend as part of the same pathetic midlife crisis. A Yale senior majoring in Religious Studies with a minor in Psych, Susie is the one family member immune to the pull of a life in the spotlight. She's the most intriguing character onstage, played with quicksilver intelligence by the terrific Steele in the production's best performance.

Susie's cynicism and deadpan humor can't mask her lingering hurt over the loss of her mother, or her vulnerability. That surfaces in particular via her lifelong crush on family friend Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), a hunky TV star in town to cleanse his artistic soul by doing a classic play. In one of Margulies' many amusing observations on the pecuniary quirks of modern celebrity, Walter describes Williamstown as, "Where all ambivalent successful actors come for absolution… Better than a high colonic."

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Such showbiz commentary seasons much of the play. Given her own distinguished credits at Williamstown, the ever-poised Danner is a great sport, swanning around on a cloud of gracious self-absorption. Anna makes a winking acknowledgment that she's too old to be doing the Shaw role and surveys the current professional theater climate with the rueful conclusion that she was born in the wrong era. "There are stars on Broadway but they're not Broadway stars," she declares.

Michael's social commitment via trips to the Congo to build schools nods to the phenomenon of celebrity pet causes. But Margulies appears to be hedging his bets as to whether this is really filling a void in the actor's life or merely assuaging his guilt over selling out. That latter concept is addressed head-on in more stimulating fashion by Rasche's worldly pragmatist Walter, who shrugs off Elliot's accusations that he has squandered his talent.

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The conflicts come to a boil in the more leaden third act with the reading of Elliot's play. While Margulies skips over the actual work itself, we learn enough to know that its protagonist has killed his mother, swallowed a bunch of pills and burned down the house by the time it ends. Danner's "I'm parched," soon after the reading concludes, is priceless. Elliot's unrequited love for Nell, with whom he worked onstage years earlier, fuels his animosity toward Walter. That yields a blunt assessment of both the play's failings and of the self-sabotage that has crippled whiny Elliot, along with Anna's shortcomings as an emotionally withholding mother who made no secret of favoring her daughter.

Margulies, Sullivan and their accomplished cast (Jennings Grant and Sunjata have joined the production since its earlier Los Angeles premiere) wrap all this up tidily in a scene that suggests the core family members may eventually find mutual understanding. But it seems almost too tidy and none of the confrontations acquires enough depth.

While it may be churlish to complain about a play that amuses and entertains with such efficiency, The Country House is disappointingly toothless, even bland. Margulies' last new work, the ironically titled Time Stands Still, was a nuanced contemplation of the shifting tides of relationships in a volatile world. This one seems mired in rather than elevated by its Chekhovian inspiration.

Cast: Blythe Danner, Kate Jennings Grant, Eric Lange, David Rasche, Sarah Steele, Daniel Sunjata

Director: Daniel Sullivan

Playwright: Donald Margulies

Set designer: John Lee Beatty

Costume designer: Rita Ryack

Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski

Music: Peter Golub

Sound designer: Obadiah Eaves

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, in association with The Geffen Playhouse

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