We gave it a B-
A bunch of actors strutting and fretting in a rain-soaked mountain getaway for a few days—sounds like the perfect recipe for drama. But there’s a curious lack of excitement in The Country House, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies (Dinner With Friends), running through November 23 at Broadway’s Friedman Theatre.
Oh, there are laughs aplenty, particularly if you like a good theater joke. The ”country house”—a cozy-chic masterpiece by John Lee Beatty—is located in the Berkshires, near Williamstown, Mass., home of the famous 60-year-old summer theater festival. Blythe Danner, whimsical and wonderful, stars as Anna Patterson, who’s there for a run of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. (Danner herself has been a regular performer at Williamstown since the ’70s.) Also on hand: her smart-mouthed but sweet-natured 19-year-old granddaughter, Susie (Sarah Steele); her failed actor?turned?aspiring playwright son, Elliot (Eric Lange); her son-in-law, Walter (David Rasche), Susie’s father and a onetime stage director who now makes his living, and his fortune, churning out generic guns-and-ammo popcorn flicks; Walter’s new much younger ”luminous” actress girlfriend, Nell (an appropriately luminous Kate Jennings Grant), who’s meeting the family precisely one year after Walter’s wife died of cancer; and Michael (a rather charmless Daniel Sunjata, of TV’s Graceland and Rescue Me), a massive TV star/celebrity who’s returned to the ”thea-tuh” to prove his legitimacy in a 100-year-old comedy. Williamstown, Walter cracks: ”Where all ambivalent successful actors come for absolution.” (Any wonder Gwyneth Paltrow returned there the summer after she won her Oscar?)
The quips are certainly timely—”There are no Broadway stars,” laments Anna. ”Oh, there are stars on Broadway…”—and the in-jokes well researched (Anna mentions doing Candida at Williamstown 24 years ago; Danner did it there in 1980). Drama buffs, meanwhile, will enjoy picking out all the Chekhov references. The Country House, which premiered in June at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse (a co-producer on Broadway with Manhattan Theatre Club), is nothing if not a valentine to the theater.
But after an apparently torturous (unseen) reading of Elliot’s play—The Seagull, anyone?—and an almost eyeball-gouging fight between Walter and Elliot (the art versus commerce debate is priceless), the second half devolves into little more than a series of banal so-long-farewell scenes: Susie reluctantly talking to and saying goodbye to Nell; Nell wishing Michael luck; Anna saying a very dramatic farewell to Michael; Michael giving a worried but sincere ”take care, buddy” to the maudlin Elliot; Elliot and Nell, parting a bit bitterly; Anna and Nell, parting surprisingly warmly. Once they all leave—and leave, and leave, and leave—Elliot decides to unburden himself by confronting Anna about all the love and encouragement she denied him. His wish to have died, instead of his ”magnificent sister,” should be wrenching. His tale of waiting for his mother?s goodnight kisses should be poignant. Instead, it feels like much ado about nothing. B-