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Given the omnipresent influence of Anton Chekhov on the theater of the past century, it seems surprisingly irresistible for playwrights to frankly filch his templates and spin their own variations. After Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and mere weeks before the opening of Stupid Fucking Bird! at the Boston Court, Pulitzer Prize winning Donald Margulies (Dinner with Friends, Collected Stories, Sight Unseen) tries his hand at rotoscoping characters and situations, cutting and pasting from Uncle Vanya and The Seagull with an offhanded dexterity that for much of its length recalls upholstered, carefully poised theatrical comedies of the long ago heyday of Broadway, perhaps less akin to a Philip Barry than to, say, a S.N. Behrman, notwithstanding its invocations to Shaw and Molnar.
Consciously employing an old-fashioned three-act structure (though in concession to modern mores, a single intermission), the setup is ready-to-wear pathos: the mother, daughter, brother, and widower of a prematurely deceased and talented woman on the first anniversary of her death from cancer at 41 reoccupy their since-closed house in the Berkshires when matriarch and star of Broadway and movies Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner) returns to do Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Williamstown Festival.
This Mme. Arkadina, though a bespoke part for the Tony- and Emmy-winning Danner, admits she is a bit “long in the tooth” casting for the title role, but she aches to resume working. Granddaughter Susie Keegan (Sarah Steele), a Yale senior, dressed in black in mourning not for her own life but for her mother’s, feels blindsided by the arrival of father, successful teen-pic film director and Serebryakov stand-in Walter Keegan (David Rasche, of Veep, Bored to Death and the long-ago lead of Sledgehammer) in company of his untimely new young fiancee, struggling actor Nell McNally (Emily Swallow, agent Kim Fischer on The Mentalist), the Yelena.
Uncle Elliott (Eric Lange of The Bridge, Weeds and Lost) assays the unhappy task of incarnating both Vanya and Treplev, a double-whammy of misery and disappointment that ultimately unhinges this play as inevitably as the fabled first-act pistol that must be discharged. An additional interloper, old family friend and now hit series super-celebrity heartthrob Michael Astor (Scott Foley of Scandal), may not exactly suggest a Dr. Astrov, but this being a contemporary piece, after all, at least he plays a doctor on TV.
Most of the first two acts are composed of persistently amusing theatrical family antics and badinage that, while overfamiliar, are deployed with drollery if not quite wit by an unstintingly accomplished cast. The clichéd observations about celebrity versus craft, theater versus film, the bruising toll of auditions, may be time-worn but also are rather time-honored, meaning they are jokes I liked. Margulies writes consistently strong dialogue, and he wears the faux Chekhovian mantle lightly. Before intermission, The Country House plays like an intelligent commercial entertainment burnished to a high sheen.
But in the third act, Margulies undertakes what his conceit demands, as envious failed actor Elliot announces he has turned his resentful hand to writing a play and prevails upon family and company to give it a first reading. We don’t get to hear any of it (the lights go down as it starts and up again after it is done), though the balance of the action sounds perilously close to what Elliot himself might have written in thrall to Chekhov’s Treplev: an anguished tirade of an unloved son to a withholding mother.
It’s odd to experience Lange, a strong actor in an impossibly unsympathetic character, imploring and accusing such vigorously heartfelt speeches with complete conviction, while squirming that Margulies has loaded his climactic gunshot with blanks. It feels uncannily as if it ought to be moving, but Elliot has been developed as so wretched an irretrievable pill that the gambit of passionate complaint convinces not a jot. It pulls the rug out from under the audience, seemingly not to jolt its complacency but out of a dutiful and willful need to punish, or at least maintain the bona fides of the project’s intentions.
It’s so splendid to relish Danner’s utterly confident star power and to feel for so long secure in the hands of such capable professionals ranging from director Dan Sullivan to the Hall of Fame design staff, that the palpable letdown so unpersuasively mimics the cathartic. Swallow’s Nell is so often alluded to a luminous beauty of genuine sincerity that she could be nearly impossible to play, but Swallow navigates its pitfalls with an impressive, even easy, grace. In the classic Virginia Weidler role, Steele, like everyone else in the cast, excels at expressing contradictory emotions under cover of wisecracking within character. As the shallowest of the ensemble, Rasche and Foley elicit shadings of surprising depth.
Perhaps the team will find its way to integrating the conflicting ambitions of Margulies’ conception more organically as the show heads to New York City’s Manhattan Theatre Club, where Broadway previews begin Sept. 9. There is no question that their collective talents appear equal to any challenge, if not quite yet.
Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through July 13)
Cast: Blythe Danner, Scott Foley, Emily Swallow, Eric Lange, David Rasche, Sarah Steele
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Playwright: Donald Margulies
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Costume designer: Rita Ryack
Sound designer: Jon Gottlieb
Music: Peter Golub
Presented by Geffen Playhouse, Manhattan Theatre Club