New York City Theater
"The Country House"
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
If “pleasant” is the best word to describe “The Country House,” then “pleasant” it shall be. Beyond that, the new play by Pulitzer Prize playwright Donald Margulies (who won for “Dinner With Friends”), while amusing and skillful, is as laid-back and negligible as lying in a backyard hammock, reading the collected works of Anton Chekhov.
“The Country House,” which borrows from Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and “The Seagull,” is an uneasy mix of those and other works about theater vs. movies, sexy intruders who upend families and misunderstood children. The ingredients are fine but the elements fight one another until we reach a point where we don’t know whose play this is.
The setting is deceptively domestic. The title house is near Williamstown, Mass., site of the famous summer theater where “ambivalent, successful actors come for absolution” and re-ignite their careers. It’s owned by Anna Patterson, once an important Broadway star (as opposed to the current crop of stars on Broadway, she says).
In the household are her son, Elliot, a failed actor who’s writing what turns out to be a terrible play; her candid granddaughter, Susie; her former son-in-law, Walter, a director of Hollywood shlock; Walter’s beautiful fiancée, Nell; and fox-in- the-henhouse Michael, a handsome, famous actor with a good heart and a modest mien. Hanging over their heads is the one-year anniversary of the death of Kathy, herself a movie star, daughter to Anna, mother of Susie and wife of Walter.
On a night that turns out to be stormy, both outside and inside, the characters are “so caught up in (their) own little dramas, (they) forget there are other people in the world.” That line is courtesy of Michael, who has volunteered to work with African children and is embarrassed by all the sexual attention he receives.
Yet the focus turns out to be, finally, on Elliot, the Uncle Vanya figure Susie affectionately calls “Uncle Idiot.” “All my life I have been the nobody in the room,” he says. “Being an artist is the only way to get anywhere around here.” Thus, at last we get what seems to be Margulies’ true concern: the plight of the misunderstood, unloved artist, filtered through a family play.
It’s too little and too late. Elliot’s emergence as this weekend in the country’s catalyst (he also had a relationship with Nell) is unprepared for and seems more like an appendage.
All of which is too bad since the acting, directing and production of this Manhattan Theater Club presentation are of such high caliber. Directed with a feel for character by Daniel Sullivan, the cast is impeccable. Blythe Danner, Kate Jennings Grant, Eric Lange, David Rasche, Daniel Sunjata and, especially, Sarah Steele as Susie are at the top of their game. Too bad Margulies isn’t.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 7, 2014