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NEW YORK – At a glance, the title of The Snow Geese might seem to evoke either The Wild Duck or The Seagull, but playwright Sharr White’s chosen model is Chekhov all the way. In case the wintry birch trees framing the stage weren’t clear enough, one lonely voice of pragmatism that might have stepped directly out of The Cherry Orchard says with blunt significance early on, “God knows what would happen if we ever stopped talking and actually did something around here.” But homage is a tricky thing, in this case making for a tedious play that’s stubbornly unaffecting, its pathos hollow and manufactured.
Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway production has elegance to spare. The same goes for the gorgeous sets of John Lee Beatty, which revolve to ingeniously allow for different perspectives on the same space of an early-20th century family hunting lodge in upstate New York, opening onto the wild marshes outside. Jane Greenwood’s period costumes also are handsomely detailed. But the overwhelming impression remains that a lot of care and effort has been put into a play that acquires a pulse only intermittently.
Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater last season had a critical hit with White’s The Other Place. An enigmatic journey into the unraveling mind of a brittle scientist dealing with the onset of dementia, it provided a riveting vehicle for the protean talents of Laurie Metcalf. The two companies aim to strike the same gold for Mary-Louise Parker with this new play. But while Parker can be a dangerous and exciting stage actor to watch, her idiosyncratic mannerisms often place her inside a bubble with little connection to the other players on the stage; that contributes here to make an unsympathetic character more distancing.
Looking ravishing in her chic widow’s weeds, Parker plays Elizabeth Gaesling, whose recently deceased spendthrift husband has left the prominent Syracuse family mired in debt. Refusing to concede that the Gilded Age is over for them, Elizabeth clings to her beloved eldest son Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit), who shares her head-in-the-clouds aversion to reality. He has been pampered into believing their fortunes are intact despite years of mismanagement. Neither of them wants to hear about the sorry state of the financial ledgers, even if Duncan’s levelheaded brother Arnold (Brian Cross, in a confident Broadway debut) is determined to make them face hard decisions.
Elizabeth insists on holding the traditional festive family gathering that marks the start of hunting season in November 1917, both as a way to keep her husband’s spirit alive and as a farewell for Duncan before he ships off to Europe to fight with a prestigious regiment in World War I.
Discreetly intervening from the sidelines are Elizabeth’s more clear-sighted sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and her immigrant husband Max (Danny Burstein), a doctor ostracized after thirty years in America due to anti-German hostility stoked by the war. Clark and Burstein give the production’s most deeply felt performances, and their characters strike the play’s most poignant notes. Jessica Love also has resonant moments as Viktorya, a Central European refugee from a once-wealthy family, now working as a maid for the Gaeslings.
A scene in which Arnold forces Elizabeth to acknowledge the financial ruin wrought by his maladroit father (Christopher Innvar) provides a viscerally charged episode in the talky drama, with Parker at her most volatile. Duncan’s gung-ho confidence that Americans will march in and fix the mess in Europe without suffering losses contrasts starkly with Max’s sobering accounts of the mounting casualties, read from the pages of The New York Times, or Viktorya’s numbed recollections of her own experience.
The playwright’s aim seems to be a commentary on American obliviousness to harsh realities at home and abroad, pertaining both to the recent financial crisis and to present-day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the distinctly contemporary delivery of much of the ensemble is jarring and anachronistic, it’s possibly intended to emphasize this parallel.
Chekhov brought subtlety, moral ambivalence and wit to his observation of the decline at the turn of the 20th century of Russia’s privileged aristocracy. White’s dull, emotionally uninvolving attempt to do the same with America lacks thematic weight. The play’s reflections on the shifting tides of class feel as obvious as the symbolic title, a bird killed in greater numbers than the diminished family can ever hope to cook or eat.
Christopher Durang’s 2012 Tony winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, while far lighter in tone, provided a much more rewarding view through a Chekhovian lens of unsettled characters in a changing world.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through Dec. 15)
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark, Evan Jonigkeit, Brian Cross, Christopher Innvar, Jessica Love
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Playwright: Sharr White
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music and sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Projection designer: Rocco DiSanti
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, MCC Theater
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