As Elizabeth in The Snow Geese, Mary-Louise Parker playfully strips off her beautiful white dress in front of her husband, down to the kind of undergarments they wore in 1917. They flirt, drink, talk gibberish, chat about a vacation to Hawaii, dance together, roar at one another as if animals in the woods.
Then he disappears.
Her sister Clarissa appears, looking alarmed at Elizabeth on the floor beside her dress. “What happened? Are you all right?” Clarissa hangs up the festive white dress, and gives her sister the black mourning dress.
Elizabeth is a widow. Her husband died some two months earlier.
And in that opening scene of Act II is a hint of the kind of theatrical tricks that playwright Sharr White used in the play that marked his Broadway debut, The Other Place, which starred Laurie Metcalf as a woman mentally deteriorating.
“The Snow Geese,” White’s second play on Broadway, is also, in a way, about decline, but not of one individual, and not in the same way. There are twists and tricks in “The Snow Geese” as well, but nowhere near as intense. (To ward off cries of “Spoiler!” I’d like to point out that the audience knows a full hour before this scene with her husband that he is dead.) Parker, whose performance in White’s play marks her sixth time on Broadway, has said that “The Snow Geese” feels like “a lost Chekhov” – and that’s about right, although not in the way she surely meant. It loses in the Chekhov competition to last season’s far more lively Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Yes, that play was ridiculous in some ways, a spoof as much as an homage. White’s play is more elegant, the allusions to the masterful Russian dramatist (slightly) more subtle. The snow geese of the title are a more useful recurring metaphor (for waste, for example; the family kills more than they can retrieve or eat) than Sonia’s “I am a wild turkey” refrain. But, despite Daniel Sullivan’s polished direction, an extraordinary cast, especially Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark; a beautiful and inventive set design by the reliable John Lee Beatty; Jane Greenwood’s as-usual spot-on costumes; and Japhy Weideman’s strikingly atmospheric lighting, “The Snow Geese” leaves you feeling at a loss as to what to make of the play.
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Like Parker’s character Nancy Botwin on Weeds, Elizabeth Gaesling is a widow with two sons. But there the similarities end. Elizabeth married into a wealthy family, and they are all gathered on November 1, 1917 in the Gaesling family lodge and 200-acre estate outside of Syracuse, New York for the first day of the annual hunting season.
Arnie (an impressive Brian Cross) is 18, nicknamed Pigeon, but the most responsible member of the family.
His brother Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit), 20, is more worldly – although not as much so as he thinks: Boarding at Exeter “was like getting devoured alive by a pack of very wealthy animals,” he says, in the peculiarly aggrieved tone of those who have never truly suffered. He has joined an elite unit of the Army, and is soon to ship off to France. Also present are Elizabeth’s sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and Clarissa’s husband Max Hohmann (Danny Burstein), a German-born physician who has been in the United States for close to 30 years. Despite the fancy digs, there is just one servant, an immigrant from the Ukraine, Viktorya Gryaznoy (Jessica Love), who has been a part of the household for just a few weeks.
As the day progresses, it becomes clear the death of the patriarch (played in that one fantasy scene by Christopher Innvar) is not the only deep loss. Elizabeth’s is only the most evident. Max, who still speaks in a German accent, is no longer able to practice medicine because of the anti-German hysteria accompanying the Great War, and he and Clarissa have escaped to the family hunting lodge, where he spends the day reading the newspapers, reciting aloud the news of casualties in Europe. Even Viktorya eventually hints at her misery. Some lose something less tangible, but more important — their illusions. Each and every character in the play has at least one terrible loss, and the whole family does as well.
That the family’s major loss turns out to be financial must surely be a stab at relevance, as is Duncan’s clearly misplaced attitude about the Great War – both must be meant to parallel current-day America’s oddly oblivious attitude towards our sinking economy and our delusional confidence in contemporary overseas conflicts. The cumulative effect of all this apparent sub-rosa relevance is to wonder why we’re in 1917 at all — didn’t America emerge from World War I both richer and powerful? It was already difficult to fit Parker, with her wonderfully quirky/slurred delivery, into the era.
“The reason society exists, Pigeon,” Elizabeth tells her youngest son, “is to make us feel better about the failures of being alive.” I wish I could feel better about “The Snow Geese.”
The Snow Geese
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
By Sharr White; directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Japhy Weideman; music and sound by Dan Moses Schreier; projections by Rocco DiSanti; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; fight director, Rick Sordelet; dances by Mimi Lieber; p
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker (Elizabeth Gaesling), Danny Burstein (Max Hohmann), Victoria Clark (Clarissa Hohmann), Evan Jonigkeit (Duncan Gaesling), Brian Cross (Arnold Gaesling), Christopher Innvar (Theodore Gaesling) and Jessica Love (Vikorya Gryaznoy).
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.
The Snow Geese is set to run through Dec. 15, 2013