Fors some reason, Clifford Odets is seldom included in the pantheon of twentieth-century American playwrights. Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, whom I think is highly overrated, are accepted as our great writers for the stage and Odets usually is placed a the top of the second rank. My pantheon would exclude the lumbering O'Neill and include Odets. He had the great gift of making characters sound real and eloquent simultaneously. The devil is in the details with Odets and none of our other major playwrights could include so many detailed character portraits in one play. Odets was the house playwright for the Group Theatre in the mid-1930s, turning out four classics in a row: WAITING FOR LEFTY, AWAKE AND SING, PARADISE LOST, AND GOLDEN BOY. All are studies of the dark side of the American dream as characters give up parts of their soul for money. In these plays Odets managed to create a group of urban characters who were simultaneously optimistic and disillusioned. The language is urban poetry. Odets writes better than any of our other playwrights except Tennessee Williams.
After a period in Hollywood -- like his characters, Odets chased fortune but never quite caught it, ODets returned to Broadway with two showbusiness sagas, THE BIG KNIFE, his vision of a Hollywood sellout, and THE COUNTRY GIRL, which is just finishing a successful run on the West End. This seems to be Odets' year in London. The National Theatre is about to revive his seldom performed 1938 play, ROCKET TO THE MOON.
I had never seen THE COUNTRY GIRL onstage and only knew it from reading it and from the film with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, of all people. Most of the play takes place backstage and in dressing rooms. It is the world of its two leading men, weak, washed-up actor Frank Elgin, who uses bits from plays he has performed in as his own fictional, self-justifying back story and young director Bernie Dodd, who can't manage a life outside of the theatre. Dodd, whose father was an alcoholic, becomes obsessed with saving Frank and providing his comeback to the stage as a leading actor. The central character is Frank's young wife, Georgie. When we first see her, she is packing a suitcase to leave her squalid flat and needy failure of a husband. Georgie is a living embodiment of disillusionment. She looks older than her years, exhausted from holding up two people. Frank tells Bernie that Georgie is mentally unstable, suicidal and an alcoholic, projecting onto her his own weaknesses. Young, idealistic Bernie believes him and treats Georgie terribly. He sees Georgie's protection of her husband as destructive when actually Frank totally depends on her.
In THE COUNTRY GIRL, Odets has written a powerful play about a strong woman surrounded by weak men. Georgie doesn't have a career, but must be mother, lover, agent, servant, domineering bitch, sexual magnet to the men who enter her sphere. By the end, all she wants to be is alone. Since the men don't see or care who she really is, Georgie remains something of an enigma to us. Slowly the details of her character emerge.
Rufus Norris, who can be a gimmicky director (his recent production of Mozart's DON GIOVANNI was dreadful) here leaves the play alone and focuses on the performances. Being a West End enterprise, the production has a cast of actors best known for their many television appearances, but with impressive theatre credentials. All give nuanced performances. All three leading roles are tricky because the characters are deeply flawed. Frank at one point says that he must come to like his character before he can play him and that is true as well of any actor in an Odets play -- he or she must find what is likeable amidst the weakness and brashness. I know people who don't care for Jenny Seagrove but I found her totally believable as a trapped woman who stops believing it is too late to change her life. Martin Shaw, who usually plays heroes in television detective dramas found the balance between bluster and weakness in Frank. Like many actors, Frank is a child who has never grown up. Georgie, young enough to be his daughter, must be his mother. Mark Letheren found Bernie's anger and his need to save Frank. I saw this production on a weekday matinee at the end of a long run. It was fresh and totally committed. It reminded me of what a great playwright Odets is and how alive he still is in the right hands. The language is beautiful, both mundane and poetic.
A tangential note. As much as I enjoyed this performance, I was appalled at the state of the Apollo Theatre. At West End prices, one expects a level of comfort and upkeep. The carpet is being held down with duct tape. The old seats are uncomfortable and there is no legroom even in the stalls. New York theatre owners keep their buildings in good condition. The Apollo, like many old West End theatres, is a dingy dump. Anyone paying Wes End prices should expect more than that.
THE COUNTRY GIRL by Clifford Odets. Directed by Rufus Norris. Sets and costumes by Scott Pask and Jonathan Lipman. With Martin Shaw, Jenny Seagrove and Mark Letheren. Apollo Theatre. January 21, 2011.