By: David Sheward
You could play a great game of Spot the Literary Reference at Sharr White’s new play, now in a joint Broadway production from Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater. Of course, there’s the most obvious one: Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, not only for the similarity in titular water fowl imagery, but also for the theme of comforting delusions provided by conventional society and a loaded pistol waved around in Act One which must go off in Act Two. Then there’s a load of Chekhovian points.
The family refusing to face their desperate financial situation and inevitably giving up their beloved estate recalls The Cherry Orchard. They all sit around talking about how bored they are and how everyone talks and never takes any action which echoes all of the Russian master’s other stage classics. The dreamy mother has more than a touch of Blanche DuBois and Mary Tyrone in her as she indulges in drug-induced fantasies of a cherished past featuring her recently deceased husband. The feckless elder son is like the heroes of Fitzgerald, full of charm and swagger, but empty inside. Take your pick for the younger son, straining to escape the nonrealistic confines of his upbringing: either Look Homeward, Angel or The Glass Menagerie.
This second-hand plotting is surprising coming from White, whose The Other Place, also presented by MTC and MCC in separate productions in previous seasons, was such an incisive and harrowing portrait of a woman losing her grip. Here the playwright has nothing new to say; the world is changing and the play’s family is ill equipped to cope with it. How many times have we heard that one? But at least he says it in an entertaining and compelling way. The dialogue is tangy and the plotting is involving, even if more than a trifle shopworn.
The setting is the Gaesling clan’s hunting lodge outside of Syracuse, N.Y., in 1917 as America enters World War I. The family is holding a final shooting party before eldest sibling Duncan is about to ship off to France. But, younger brother Arnold is struggling with the financial disaster left behind by the late profligate father Teddy. In addition to the main conflict between the distracted mother Elizabeth and the more pragmatic Arnold over money worries, there is Elizabeth’s ultra religious sister Clarissa and her doctor-husband, Max, whose practice has dried up in xenophobic reaction to his German background and accent. There’s also the new maid Viktorya, a formerly rich Ukrainian refugee fleeing the horrors of her homeland.
Director Daniel Sullivan delivers his usual tight, professional production with elegant period sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Jane Greenwood. Mary-Louise Parker seems lost as Elizabeth and finds a solid through-line only in a powerful confrontation with Arnold in which this overwhelmed widow defends her seemingly floundering attitude. Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark are impressive as Clarissa and Max. Brian Cross as Arnold carries the majority of the dramatic weight with admirable skill for his Broadway debut. Evan Jonigkeit is appropriately dashing and clueless as the shining but empty Duncan. Jessica Love adds texture to the displaced housemaid, and Christopher Innvar makes the most of his single scene as Teddy in a nostalgic flashback. With such talented cooks, too bad this goose is such an unimaginative meal.
Oct. 24-Dec. 15. Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours including intermission. $67-125. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Joan Marcus