Ah, life in the theater. It can be so DRAMATIC.
So playwright Donald Margulies wants you to think in his latest effort, The Country House, which opened last week at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The co-production with L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse stars Blythe Danner as theatrical matriarch Anna Patterson. Set against the backdrop of a summer home in the Berkshires during the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the family (along with some unexpected guests) plunder along, each with his or her own bit of dramatic intent as they acknowledge the death of Anna’s adult daughter, who succumbed to lung cancer the previous year.
We first meet granddaughter and Ivy League student Susie (played with dark humor by Sarah Steele), the only non-actor in the family who seems to be the one with a voice of reason among the manufactured sweeping emotions of her relatives. Her widower father, Walter (played by David Rasche) has arrived with his new fiancée (and struggling actress) Nell (played by Kate Jennings Grant). Of course, the family tree wouldn’t be complete without requisite drunk and naysayer, Elliot (the aforementioned deceased daughter’s surviving brother, played with humor and gravitas by Eric Lange). And for good measure throw in Michael, a hunky, displaced actor with a disposition for flirting (played by Daniel Sunjata) and you’ve got a stacked deck of cards beckoning for dramatic tension.
Not much really happens in Margulies’ play. The Pulitzer Prize winner (Dinner With Friends) is a master of characterization, though, and imbues the family members and their guests with qualities and honesty that blister. Nell, who arrives as the odd woman out, having to face her future husband’s less than enthusiastic daughter as well as his rather daunting former mother-in-law, perhaps sums it up best, by saying at one point, “This business has done nasty things to me.”
Indeed. Her words ring true as family tensions continue to escalate between Anna and Elliot. Ms. Danner appropriately radiates leading lady charm, if not perhaps the most maternal nature. Sweeping throughout John Lee Beatty’s set with a slight air of Norma Desmond, it’s as if she’s always on the lookout for the best camera angle or crafted gesticulation. But underneath, Anna understands that her time in the limelight is fading. Repeated failed attempts to seduce her much younger houseguest Michael show a crack in Anna’s foundation, one that Ms. Danner is willing to pry open and explore with subtle vulnerability.
But the driving force behind The Country House is Eric Lange’s performance as Elliot. Riddles with self-effacing humor, disgust, anger and self-loathing, he sums it up best by saying at one point, “It’s exhausting being me.” It is, at times, exhausting for the audience, too—watching Elliot force the family to read his mediocre play or unsuccessfully (much like his mother) attempt to seduce his former brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Or worst yet, break down in rage at the feet of his mother only to be half-heartedly embraced as if he was a stray dog that had wandered in from the road.
Director Daniel Sullivan keeps things moving at a steady pace as the summer storm rolls through the Berkshires and rains down upon the family. But at the end of the day their incestuous rants feel like the dry leaves of fall. They are—at least to this reviewer—an unlikeable bunch of characters. The kind of people you might meet at a cocktail party and think, “That was a lot.” Great performances notwithstanding, The Country House is someplace you might want to visit, but perhaps not inhabit for an extended stay.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Through November 23
The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler is an internationally published journalist, whose work has appeared in Passport Magazine, Hamptons, Travel Weekly, and online for EDGE Media Network, Gothamist.com, and ShermansTravel, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.