Thursday, October 16, 2014

Broadway Review—Donald Margulies' "The Country House"

The Country House
Written by Donald Margulies; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through November 23, 2014
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Kate Jennings Grant, Daniel Sunjata, Blythe Danner in The Country House (photo: Joan Marcus)
At his best, playwright Donald Margulies has a rare gift for creating characters whose very down-to-earth realism makes them iconic, as in Dinner with Friends and Sight Unseen. At his less than best—as in his latest play, The Country House—Margulies still penetratingly analyzes his characters, although there is something lacking in the plotting, exposition and his usual insightfulness.

The Country House sounds as generic as its title: this is a play about actors who converge on the Berkshires each summer to perform at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The central character, matriarch Anna Patterson, is the grand dame of Williamstown, and holds forth in the house, which she and her late husband have owned for decades, for the first time since the death of her beloved daughter Kathy. (The play is dedicated to actress Dana Reeve, who died in 2006 of lung cancer.)

Staying with Anna are her granddaughter, level-headed college student Susie; her son, perennially auditioning actor and budding playwright Eliot; Susie's father (and Kathy's widower), famous movie director Walter Keegan, who arrives with his new (much younger) girlfriend Nell; and superstar hunk (and beloved TV doctor) Michael Astor, in town to return to his stage roots for the summer, and invited by Anna—who met him at the local supermarket—to crash at their house while his own sublet is being fumigated.

So Margulies sets up a tragicomic Chekhovian journey, with readily identifiable characters sketched in short of outright caricature. That Anna is played by the luminous Blythe Danner—herself a big Williamstown presence for many years—is one of the play's many in-jokes. But Margulies also piles up contrivances more than is warranted for a playwright of his stature, even if it must be admitted that the gimmicky situations and relationships are so well written from scene to scene that they never fatally compromise the play, only make it teeter on a weakened foundation.

It's no surprise that we discover that Nell had a short fling with Eliot years before, and that he still pines for her; or that Eliot has written a nakedly autobiographical play that the households reads through; or that Anna all but ignored her son Eliot while putting her darling daughter Kathy on a pedestal; or that Susie's had a crush on family friend Michael since she was a toddler; or that Nell and Michael are intensely attracted to each other. That last leads to the play's biggest contrivance, which makes for a pre-intermission surprise: but it's so well prepared for by Margulies' crafty writing, the cast's excellent acting and Daniel Sullivan's artful direction that it works, at least at that very moment. Just don't think about it too much.

The Country House works like a perfectly oiled machine, which is the problem. As resourceful a writer as Margulies is; as forceful and funny as his jabs at theater, movies and TV are; as dexterously knitted together as is the superb cast of six—with special mention to David Rasche for his blustery but droll Walter, a once-hailed director reduced to making movies for 15 year old boys; as well-paced as Daniel Sullivan's direction is on John Lee Beatty's meticulously detailed set, The Country House is ultimately less than the sum of its many proficient parts.

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