Theatre review: 'The Country Girl'

BOTTOM LINE: Beautifully acted revival of Clifford Odet's too-long neglected backstage drama.

As the Broadway production of "Awake and Sing" a few years back demonstrated, the works of playwright Clifford Odets are long overdue for reappraisal. Further evidence is provided by Mike Nichols' star-studded revival of the writer's long-neglected "The Country Girl" -- this is the play's first Broadway appearance since 1972 -- which, though it doesn't quite make the case for the play as an unsung classic, proves that it is a highly effective melodrama that still can be moving in the hands of gifted actors.

That element is here in abundance, with the play providing a superb vehicle for Morgan Freeman's return to the stage after an absence of nearly two decades. Co-starring opposite Oscar winner Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher, the actor delivers a deeply touching performance as Frank Elgin, the alcoholic, has-been stage actor desperately trying to make a comeback.

McDormand, in the role that won Grace Kelly an Oscar for the 1954 screen version, plays his wife, Georgie, the "country girl" who shepherds him through the process with a steely protectiveness, and Gallagher is the hot-shot director Bernie Dodd, who is determined to help his fragile leading man recapture his former greatness.

The play's depictions of alcoholism and co-dependency, while hardly revelatory anymore, still ring true, which is not the case when it comes to all of the plot elements. Indeed, some aspects, like Bernie and Georgie's brief flirtation, are dealt with in such a casual fashion that they barely register. Wisely, Nichols has provided an understated staging that underplays the work's contrivances while letting the actors well explore the nuances of their characters.

It's a particular pleasure to see Freeman -- who has spent much of his screen career exploiting his natural gravitas -- playing a highly flawed, vulnerable figure. The actor beautifully captures the shifting aspects of Frank's condition, whether he's desperately trying to cover up the drunkenness that results from an overindulgence in cough medicine or, in the opening scene in which he reluctantly auditions, briefly displaying his long-untapped primal force.

As with such other recent revivals as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Come Back, Little Sheba," the color-blind aspect of Freeman's casting largely is ignored, save for a moment in which Bernie is briefly stunned when first introduced to Georgie.

McDormand, whose visage well suggests world-weariness, is highly effective, conveying Georgie's intense love for her husband even while subtly letting us see the emotional price she has paid for that dedication. And Gallagher infuses the role of the director with an aggressive energy that makes his stubborn determination to overcome the obstacles involved in Frank's comeback all the more explicable.

The supporting players —including Chip Zien as the skeptical producer, Remy Auberjonois as a mild-mannered playwright, Lucas Caleb Rooney as a solicitous stage manager and Anna Camp as the flustered ingenue —deliver nary a false note. Equally authentic is Tim Hatley's perfectly detailed sets, depicting Frank and Georgie's run-down apartment and the backstage environs in which most of the action takes place. (partialdiff)

Venue: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher.
PlayWright: Clifford Odets.
Director: Mike Nichols.