Thursday, 18 September 2014

Blythe Danner in THE COUNTRY HOUSE by Donald Margulies at the Manhattan Theatre Club Friedman Theatre

     Donald Margulies' THE COUNTRY HOUSE, a mildly diverting piece of fluff, a hardback to "sophisticated comedies" of the 1940s and 1950s, is well crafted, but it has absolutely nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century. Margulies wants us to hear the echoes of Chekhov, but there is no substance here. The title is an echo of Chekhov titles (THE CHERRY ORCHARD, THE SEA GULL, THE THREE SISTERS). The setting is the Berkshires summer home of grande dame actress Anna Paterson (Blythe Danner -- think Madame Arkadina of THE SEA GULL). Anna is now "of an age" and has difficulty getting lead roles, so she has returned to the Williamstown Theatre Festival to play the mother in Shaw's MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION (she's actually too old for that role). Anna's daughter, a movie star, died of cancer a year ago. Anna's son Elliott (Eric Lange) is a self-pitying middle-aged loser who, like Konstantin in THE SEA GULL, has written a bad pretentious play that he shares with his family. Elliott's love of his own misery might be acceptable in a young man like Konstantin, but it is merely tedious in a middle-aged man. Can anyone have sympathy for him? Anna's son-in-law (David Rasche), a successful director of action movies, has arrived with Nell, his new wife-to-be (Kate Jennings Grant), a beautiful actress with whom all the men are smitten (think Elena in THE CHERRY ORCHARD). Also visiting is Michael Astor, a stunningly handsome tv star, played by stunningly handsome Daniel Sunjata, who has come back to Williamstown to show that he is still a serious actor, though he's playing in that old chestnut, Molnar's THE GUARSMAN (think Trigorin with a conscience). Michael, former lover of Anna's daughter, stirs up lustful feelings in all the females, particularly Anna, which is a bit unseemly (are we supposed to find her attempted seduction of a man half her age funny?) and Anna's college-age granddaughter Susie (the wonderful Sarah Steele). Of course Michael is tired of having loveless sex.
     There's a lot of family feuding, a lot of sexual frustration and a lot of self pity. There's also a lot of talk about "the theatah", as the film director mockingly calls it, and the current state of show business. We're supposed to find these people glamorous and noble in their artistic aspirations. Unfortunately they are not drawn from life, but from other plays and movies. Chekhov via Noel Coward and ALL ABOUT EVE. Sixty years ago or so, this sort of thing played Broadway with Claudette Colbert or some other aging Hollywood star.
     Daniel Sullivan has directed it well on a lovely set (John Lee Beatty). The cast is a classy ensemble.
     The Manhattan Theatre Club now specializes in the dramatic counterpart to "chick flicks" -- "chick plays." If only they really spoke to twenty-first century women.
THE COUNTRY HOUSE. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. September 17, 2014.

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