Inspired by Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, Donald Margulies’ new play The Country House makes good use of some of the same raw materials. Chekhov liked country houses and actresses and unhappy sons and disgruntled lovers and rebellious youngsters and Mr. Margulies has brought them all, and more, to a lovely old house near Williamstown, Massachusetts where the star Anna Patterson has ensconced herself and her family for a summer weekend, as she prepares to play Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
She’s invited her family to visit for a memorial for her daughter, Kathy, who had died a year earlier after a losing battle with cancer. Anna’s son Elliot has already moved in, as has her granddaughter Susie and Kathy’s widower, Walter, who is Susie’s father. He’s brought with him his intended second wife, a lady named Nell, who is lovely to look at, and many years his junior. Further complications are piled on early when Michael Astor, a second rung but still prominent film star, who had appeared with Anna eleven years ago in this same town in a summer revival of Candida. The relationship they’d formed during that run was intense but platonic. After all, Candida was a respectable woman married to a minisiter, and Astor’s role was that of a boy just entering manhood, but offstage there was an attraction, and it was mutual. He’s back in Williamstown now, running in a revival of The Guardsman. So here we have a colorful assortment of theatrical characters, the sort playwrights have been maneuvering for centuries. Donald Margulies, an excellent one, has put them to good use in populating a crackling good play.
The Manhattan Theatre Club has given us a splendid production which grows more involving as it spins itself out over a long weekend in the country. A houseful of famous and longing-to-be famous creative artists is bound to stir up some interesting action when a summer storm knocks out the electricity, and overcrowding puts one of the guests on the living room sofa instead of in the bedroom that had been planned for him. Margulies has a keen ear for the language of these theatrical folks rusticating in the peace and quiet of a cozy New England town.
The one “civilian” in the group is Susie Kergan, Anna’s granddaughter, and her earthy pragmatism confronts her grandmother, her father, her father’s mistress, and her Uncle Elliot in due course. Sarah Steele, who was equally good in Slowgirl off Broadway, brings an objective viewpoint to the goings on in the heightened reality of a show business family. Some of it is very funny, but the humor is organic, and cuts deeply enough to make the more sober realizations that emerge hit us as earned. The playwright is helped by the rest of a first class cast, headed by the lovely and resourceful Blythe Danner as the matriarch Anna. She’s matched by David Rasche as her dead daughter’s widower, and by Eric Lange as her very unhappy son, a would-be actor who cannot bear that he is the one total loser in the family.
As each of these disparate personalities comes into close contact with one another, the confrontations are accurately written, and offer theatrical bombast with which to entertain us. Laughter reigns throughout the evening, some of it in response to the wit of the dialogue, some of it from the surprising situations in which all of the combatants find themselves. There is a journey here as well, and by final curtain some exposed truths have permitted small shifts to occur in the dynamics of the immediate family. Nothing is totally resolved, but progress has been made, and that’s a very satisfying accomplishment for a comedy about a family to achieve.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of The Country House is onstage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, NYC.
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Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.