To help explain how “The Country House” could be so mediocre despite an award-winning playwright’s classic inspiration, a first-rate production and an exemplary cast, let’s start with a scene involving all six characters in the play. The great actress Anna Patterson (portrayed by the great actress Blythe Danner) has gathered her extended family in Anna’s country house in the Berkshires near the Williamstown Theater Festival for the first time since Anna’s adult daughter Kathy died of lung cancer a year earlier. Kathy’s widower Walter, a director of action flicks, has brought along his new, much younger girlfriend Nell, an actress. The others ask Walter and Nell how they met:
Nell: We met at Starbucks.
Susie [Kathy’s daughter]: Ew, you’re kidding
Nell: I know
Elliot [Kathy’s brother, a failed actor]: Didn’t see that coming.
Walter: I’d just finished auditions for the picture I’m about to do…
Elliot: You mean people actually audition for those things?
Walter: …and there, sitting at a table outside, was this… angel, crying into her latte.
Anna: Oh, dear.
Nell: Soy latte.
Michael [Kathy’s ex-lover, a rich TV actor]: Why were you crying?
Nell: Let’s just say I was having a bad day.
Michael: What happened?
Nell: It’s too trivial to go into. Actor stuff. I was up for a pilot; I didn’t get it.
Donald Margulies, the Pulitzer-winning playwright who was full of insight about marriage in the exquisite “Dinner With Friends,” has filled this new play, an MTC production running at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater through November 9, with…actor stuff that’s too trivial to go into – but he goes into it anyway.
Students of Chekhov will recognize “The Country House” as an update of “The Seagull” with a little “Uncle Vanya” thrown in. Christopher Durang did something similar two seasons back in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which is also set in a summer theater colony, Bucks County, and also features a character that is a famous actress. But Durang’s play successfully combines a parody of Chekhov with an homage to him; it is both funny and affecting. By contrast, “The Country Wife,” although it has some witty lines and touching moments, largely undermines itself. Nearly every time there is a promise of a compelling scene, it swerves into something tired and trite about the nature of celebrity or the actor’s life.
This is especially too bad because of how fine the cast is, well directed by Margulies’ long-time collaborator Daniel Sullivan. Danner’s lovely performance as an aging actress is no surprise; one wishes she was on stage more frequently. Sarah Steele, who plays Eli Gold’s feisty daughter on The Good Wife (and who was terrific Off-Broadway in Slowgirl and Russian Transport), is a delight as Anna’s feisty granddaughter. Daniel Sunjata, Broadway heartthrob and Tony nominee since Take Me Out, and a TV star of Rescue Me and Graceland, is completely convincing as Michael, a laid-back hunky TV star who is ambivalent about his success, especially with the ladies. (By the end of “The Country House,” every single woman in the house will try to seduce him.) The true standout is Eric Lange making his Broadway debut as Elliot, Anna’s caustically witty, loser son who fails at everything he does, blaming his mother’s lack of love for his shortcomings.
Had Margulies made these characters a family of doctors or even circus performers, he might well have been forced to avoid much of what’s banal and outright irritating about “The Country House.” It doesn’t help that yet another Broadway play about actors, wedged in between last season’s egregious “Bullets Over Broadway” and lumbering “Act One” and this season’s forthcoming revival of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only A Play,” is at least one play too many.
When Elliot holds a staged reading of his first play, enlisting the rest of the household to play their parts, the curtain comes down before the first line is read, rising after the play is completed. The face and posture of the performers indicate how awful it was, but the audience is spared any of it—something MTC might have considered.
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The Country House
At Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 West 47th Street)
By Donald Margulies
Directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Rita Ryack; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Obadiah Eaves; music by Peter Golub. thecountryhousebway.com.
Cast: Blythe Danner (Anna Patterson), Kate Jennings Grant (Nell McNally), Eric Lange (Elliot Cooper), David Rasche (Walter Keegan), Sarah Steele (Susie Keegan) and Daniel Sunjata (Michael Astor).
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Tickets: $67.00 – $125.00
The Country House is scheduled to run through November 9th.