By: David Sheward
You would think with all the insider theatrical references flying around in Donald Margulies’ The Country House, at least one of the show-folk characters would say, "You know, this is just like being in a Chekhov play." Cl
early Margulies, one of our finest playwrights, is deliberately citing the Russian master of middle-class ennui, but he doesn’t get far beyond the footnotes. Christopher Durang did a much more imaginative job of updating and Americanizing Chekhov by wildly satirizing him in the Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Margulies who has more sharply observed the complexities of human relations in plays like Dinner with Friends, Time Stands Still, and Sight Unseen, settles for tired jokes about contemporary entertainment trends and wheezy melodramatic conflicts in this Manhattan Theatre Club production.
The plot is basically a mash-up of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Glamorous leading lady Anna Patterson (a luminous Blythe Danner) is playing hostess to a mob of overheated egos in her Berkshires country house during the summertime Williamstown Theatre Festival. Her daughter, also an actress, has recently died of cancer and Anna’s grief is shared by her screw-up son Elliot (an intense Eric Lange), her smart-aleck granddaughter Susie (a refreshingly low-key Sarah Steele), and the dead woman’s husband and Susie’s father Walter (a comic David Rasche), a wildly successful movie director. Just like in Vanya, the recently widowed Walter brings along a beautiful new girlfriend Nell (Kate Jennings Grant doing her best with a thankless role), also an actress, and the depressive Elliott is in love with her. Oh, did I mention Elliott, a failed actor, has decided to become a playwright and he wants everyone to participate in a reading of his first work which, of course, is self-indulgent dreck. Just like in The Seagull. After the disastrous reading, the dialogue for Elliott and Anna is almost verbatim from Constantine and Arkadina’s in the Chekhov original.
But it’s not totally a Russian rip-off. Margulies throws in a little Midwestern sex sizzle with a nod to William Inge’s Picnic in the form of hot TV actor Michael Astor (the dazzlingly attractive Daniel Sunjata) who just happens to need a place to sleep because his sublet is being fumigated. None of the women in Anna’s crowded home can keep their hands off Michael including Anna herself.
Margulies attempts to add depth to these shallow whiners whose biggest problems seems to be not getting cast in a pilot. Much of his dialogue is snappy with lots of zingers aimed at the MTC subscription audiences. The crowd at the performance attended dutifully tittered over digs at matinee ladies, the state of Broadway, and guilty actors getting a shot of culture at the WTF and then returning to movies and TV for a fat paycheck. But it’s hard to care about these carbon-copy Chekhovites. Their every action is inspired by other plays rather than organic emotions.
Yet there are pleasures of a kind here. Director Daniel Sullivan provides his usual polished production. Danner’s silk-and-sandpaper alto is always welcome and she finds a core of humanity in a thin character, just as she did in The Commons of Pensicola, another MTC production from last season. Sarah Steele wisely underplays Susie’s gloom and David Rasche garners some honest laughs as the brutally frank helmer defending his choice to abandon the stage for the more profitable world of screen-action franchises (though it is a bit hard to take when his character bitches about having to audition actors all day.) Daniel Sunjata and Kate Jennings Grant are at least pleasant to look at and struggle mightily to give dimension to their roles as does Eric Lange who is saddled with the irredeemably needy Elliot. John Lee Beatty’s cozy set makes you want to move right in, but only after the current tenants have vacated for the summer.
Oct. 2-Nov. 23. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue., Wed., 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun., 2 p.m. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission. $67-$125. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.