A strange thing happens when good actors find themselves cast in a play in which their characters are ill defined or not defined at all. These actors, trapped on their own, make choices in order to help them add meaning to the literate but unrevealing lines their author, in this case Sharr White, gives them.
Unfortunately in this case, not all choices were wise. Ms. Sharr’s The Other Place was reported to have served Laurie Metcalf well last season in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production at the same Samuel Friedman Theatre on Broadway. But Mary-Louise Parker, so radiant in Proof and Prelude to a Kiss some seasons ago, as well as for 8 seasons on the TV comedy “Weeds”, is still radiant, but unable to connect with Elizabeth Gaesling, the Mother in this family play set in upstate New York during November 1917. She presides over the hunting lodge her late husband left her, where her sister Clarissa, brother in law Max, two sons Arnold and Duncan and a refugee maid are all managing on greatly reduced income as the family’s fortunes dwindle. We learn that Elizabeth’s dead husband has been a total failure as treasurer of the family fortune, that she had ignored the problem, and the lodge will have to be sold in order for the family to go on living in their flat in Syracuse not too far away.
Daniel Sullivan, excellent director of Proof, Good People, Rabbit Hole and a gaggle of other worthy plays that are character-driven, has staged this one smoothly, working with designer John Lee Beatty to allow us to move in and about the lodge as needs be. But getting back to those good actors he’s cast, and their problems, we find that Victoria Clark and Danny Burstein, both better known for their work in musicals, are playing realistically the practical Clarissa and the brooding Max. But Ms. Parker, still radiant and looking lovely in the magnificent widow’s weeds supplied by designer Jane Greenwood, has not managed to adjust to the needs of the period of the play. Her detachment from all things practical, including the proper mothering of her two spoiled and petulant sons, have all the earmarks of a modern mom who’s tried several forms of therapy, for she retains all the tics, grimaces and unexpected smiles that bring to mind a jazz baby in the approaching 1920s, one who might have evolved into one of those ladies who lunch.
All of these characters find richer, rounder antecedents in the plays of Anton Checkov, of which The Snow Geese is more an abridgement than an homage. Elizabeth has touches of Lyobov in The Cherry Orchard, Clarissa and Max are brushed with characters from Uncle Vanya, and both Arnold and Duncan have bits of Constantin, the troubled son in The Sea Gull, but unlike the delicious Vanya and Sonia and Masha in Christopher Durang’s funny contemporization of the Chekhov oeuvre, where fresh new characters have been created, Ms. White has neutered the originals and replaced them with literate mouth pieces who do not connect with each other emotionally, which does not allow the audience to connect either.
As a result, Ms. Parker is distant, as she was four seasons ago when she gave us her Hedda Gabler. Brian Cross and Evan Jonigkeit are both over the top in playing the brothers’ sibling rivalry the play calls for. A gun is introduced in Act One, and used in Act Two, but that use isn’t earned, and ultimately accomplishes little, another foiled attempt to bring life to this insipid dramatic work.
Beautifully mounted, lit, costumed and cast with actors who’ve for the most part proved themselves elsewhere, count this one up as a miss for the Manhattan Theatre Club and the MCC Theater, which is co-sponsoring.
The Snow Geese is onstage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY. Details and tickets.