In the very first scene of Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, Frank Elgin (Brian Crane), is auditioning for a play. In the course of improvising a character, he says: “I have to like him or I can’t get inside him.” This single line of dialogue turns out to be a harbinger for all that follows.
Elgin is an alcoholic and a washed up actor who once was known for creating characters that were powerfully realistic and moving. His pronouncement that he must like the character he is asked to portray is really a cover for an alcoholic’s unquenchable thirst for approval. His dilemma is this: the one character he can’t stand – and thus can’t get inside – is himself.
The Country Girl revolves around Elgin, his wife, Georgie (Vanessa Bradculis), and the director of the play within the play, Bernie Dodd (Kevin O’Reilly), who believes enough in Elgin to give him a shot at a comeback. Odets writes moving dialogue, and if you love theater your natural inclination will be to root for Elgin. Unfortunately, in American Century’s production, we can’t like the characters, and can’t get inside them.
Odets was a founding member of the Group Theatre, for whom “getting inside the character” was the Holy Grail. When an actor is able to inhabit the life of the character completely, all traces of “performance” disappear and all that follows is a natural and spontaneous unfolding. The actors of the Group Theatre were to be vehicles for this transformation in acting from “performance” to what we once affectionately referred to as “ash can realism” (think Marlon Brando).
But here we have the opposite of realism. In the first Act, the actors seem overly self-conscious. As Frank Elgin, Brian Crane comes the closest to occupying his character believably. With Mr. O’Reilly and Ms. Bradchulis, there are too many occasions when it appears they are listening to hear their cue line so they can jump in with whatever rehearsed reaction or line reading comes next.
Director Steven Scott Mazzola’s pacing during the first Act is uneven and halting. At times the dialogue sounds as though it is filled with non- sequiturs, and there are noticeable unmotivated emotional turns — sudden flares of frustration or bursts of anger that are unconvincing.
The relationship between Elgin and Georgie, his “country girl,” remains something of a mystery throughout the evening. As written, it is full of the wrenching codependence, smoldering frustration and soul sapping resignation that characterize a long term relationship with an alcoholic. As played, there is an emotional distance between them that is puzzling rather than illuminating.
In the second Act, things get better. Where Ms. Bradchulis had been hesitant and self-conscious, she is now increasingly in command, focused and hitting the emotional bulls-eye regularly. Her arresting insights into Dodd’s vulnerability seem to pick him up and make him much more believable. Crane continues to build on a solid first act and is particularly adept at the sudden emotional twists and turns he faces as his alcoholic lies and deceitfulness come unraveled. What seems unmotivated and difficult to understand in the first Act is now revelatory. In a difficult role with everything to hide and seemingly nothing to gain, Crane does very well.
I’m betting that The Country Girl will continue to grow more confident and find more of the subtleties in Odets’ writing as the run continues. Interestingly enough, it would benefit greatly from the attitude taken by Bernie Dodd. Once the actors feel fully at home in their roles, he argues, they should have the freedom to explore and become much more spontaneous. And who knows what might happen then?
The Country Girl
By Clifford Odets
Produced by American Century Theater
Directed by Steven Scott Mazzoli
Reviewed by Larry Bangs
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission