Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 2, 2014
The Country House by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Rita Ryack. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Original music by Peter Golub. Fight Direction by Thomas Schall. Cast: Blythe Danner, Kate Jennings Grant, Eric Lange, David Rasche, Sarah Steele, Daniel Sunjata.
The closest thing there is to a unifying principle in Donald Margulies's unfocused and airy new play The Country House, which Manhattan Theatre Club is now presenting at the Samuel J. Friedman, is that these people don't need to play Chekhov: They're living it. The great grand-dame matriarch, Anna Patterson, especially as embodied by a shimmering Blythe Danner, may as well be a youth-coveting Arkadina. Her failure of a son, once an actor and now a playwright, Elliot (Eric Lange), is Vanya in all but name (he even sponsors a reading among the family of his first, impenetrable, draft). There's a Trigorin type, too, in the form of ultra-handsome movie star Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), and...
You get the idea, and you'll get it time and time again over the nearly two and a half hours Margulies's hyperextended play lasts under Daniel Sullivan's uncharacteristically stuffy direction. Certainly, Chekhov can occasionally be a trial, when those involved are more interested in drowning themselves in the message than actually presenting it. Thankfully, that doesn't happen here, at least until the final sceneMargulies is on his best behavior at not missing the point, if only because he doesn't usually seem interested in making one.
There's no good reason that we couldn't, on some level, identify with this group, which also includes Anna's granddaughter, Susie (Sarah Steele); her father, Walter (David Rasche), the husband of Anna's daughter, who died a year ago; and Walter's new girlfriend, Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), who's come along to visit the titular dwelling for a week. (That house, which has been designed with a winning, cramped coziness by John Lee Beatty, is located in the Berkshires; the Williamstown Theatre Festival is mentioned early and often.) They do, after all, experience lust, jealousy, loss, career fatigue or slowdown, and anger at those who know us better than we'd want.
It does, however, have the benefit of igniting a couple of relationships that deliver the only dramatic payoffs The Country House sees. Both involve Elliot: one with Walter, whom he blames for his sister's death and despises for selling out to the audience of 15-year-old boys his cash-creating movies so nakedly tempt (Walter is a thinly veiled takeoff on Michael Bay); and one with Anna, in which he systematically dismantles her claims that she never put the theatre before any member of her family.
These moments invigorate your emotions because they're the only ones in which these people step off the stage and into the messy problems of imperfect people. When we see that Elliot's resentments extend beyond the professional and into the core of his worldview, he becomes a deeper, more serious person worthy of both the sympathy he asks for and, yes, the scorn that's so often been heaped upon him. Margulies unpacks the question of how much we're really to blame for any of us, and sparks a much-welcome, enveloping fire from showing just how little Elliot likes the answers he receives.
Lacking more of this, The Country House is impressively shallow, and, aside from Lange's well-judged late-show explosions, buoyed by the women's performances. Danner and Grant are positively luminous, major beauties dealing with painful realities at opposing ends of the age spectrum. The former is devious, at times hilariously so, in depicting Anna's attempts to sate her myriad hungers, and Danner makes clear that she's far from the helpless, withering creature others perceive her as. Nell is less complex, but Grant brings a captivating warmth to an out-of-her-element woman, and movingly demonstrates the personal impact of her attempts to integrate herself into this very different culture. Steele gives a steel-lined performance that, if unremarkable, is typical of her best portrayals, and just in line with what's required of apostate Susie (the only non-actor in the bunch, studying Religious Studies with a psychology minor).
Rasche and Sunjata don't dig particularly deep in defining Walter and Michael; though this could suggest they're victims of the dehumanizing effects of the Hollywood system through which they've made their fortunes, both have tight enough ties to their "art" that this interpretation doesn't hold much water. You believe, ultimately, that Margulies needs Walter and Michael around to act as catalysts for the feelings Elliot and Anna eventually unleash, which leads to a number of listless scenes until the fireworks start flying.
Chekhov frequently held off on the outward pyrotechnics, too, but his works were characterized by the flames forever crackling beneath the surface, longing to get out but often held in check by antiquated notions of propriety. That's not the case hereeveryone is so in touch with even the darkest corners of their worst selves, and willing to embrace those same traits, that there's not much mystery left by the time you need it most. Given that so many of the people in Chekhov's plays are tortured by saying too little, it's the last, depressing irony in The Country House that these characters are instead hobbled by saying far too much.