The Mike Nichols revival of Clifford Odets’s 1950 play “The Country Girl” headed by two Oscar winning movie stars and a popular film/television actor has been the subject of much speculation along the rialto. Most of the gossip has focused on Morgan Freeman’s inability to remember his lines during rehearsals, adding an element of drama to the unfolding production, with reports in the press of on stage flubs during previews. Nichols even removed what many considered to be a pivotal scene from Act I, only to restore it before opening night to the satisfaction of the purists. The low wattage staging, although credible and nuanced, is a subtle brew lacking the necessary combustion to ignite the backstage melodrama to its full potential.
Obviously manipulative “The Country Girl” is less political than Odets’s 1935 heralded debut play “Awake and Sing,” which was revived a couple of seasons ago to much acclaim. Here the playwright focuses on a co-dependent relationship between Frank Elgin (Morgan Freeman), a recovering alcoholic has been actor, and Georgie Elgin (Frances McDormand), his enduring frayed wife, who has one foot out the door. The two have endured the failure of his once promising career and the death of their only daughter. The struggles have left them worn and filled with doubts.
A hotshot up and coming new director, Bernie Dodd (Peter Gallagher), gives Frank a last chance to redeem himself in a Broadway bound play trying out in Boston. Bernie feels Frank was born to play the potent lead and will do anything to pull a performance out of him. Add a heated triangle between the three, and you have a well crafted psychological drama that asks two questions. Will Frank succeed? And will Georgie stay?
While the somewhat sentimental journey isn’t particularly profound, the playwright does chart an insightful portrait of a crumbling marriage and the disintegration of the human spirit. Setting it backstage and raising the stakes with the possibility of a comeback makes the affecting drama all the more entertaining. Here Odets has given us a love letter to the theater that says much about artistic collaboration as well.
The credible production lacks the histrionics necessary to fire the melodrama. The gifted Morgan Freeman appears miscast relying on his considerable charm to play against type. His Frank is unusually subdued in his manipulations. It appears Frank has given up without really making the effort. Doomed to failure, he has already decided he will drink to escape the pressure going down with barely a flicker.
Frances McDormand has the right quality for his weary wife and while the performance displays thoughtful shadings, she too initially feels as if she has given up. The accumulation of the small details of her performance is poignant, and eventually makes sense, especially her toughness at having endured an interracial marriage during the period. But the fire the playwright allows for never burns between the two of actors.
Peter Gallagher brings needed sting to the evening with a stylized forceful portrayal of the single minded director. If much of his work feels imposed and in stark contrast to the wan naturalism of the two leads, Gallagher does add welcome electricity.
While the evening is essentially a three character study, all the talented supporting players make impressive contributions. Best are Remy Auberjonois as the conscientious playwright and Chip Zien as the edgy producer. The scenic design consisting of two backstage dressing rooms by Tim Hatley are excellent in their simplicity with a stark brick walls as a backdrop.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dans Papers
“The Country Girl” opened on Broadway April 27, 2008 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Tickets are available at HYPERLINK "http://www.telecharge.com" www.telecharge.com by phone at 212-239-6200 or at the theatre box office.