by Cory Conley · November 1, 2013
There aren't enough plays set during World War I. That was clear as soon as the magnificent revival of Journey's End, R.C. Sherriff's suspenseful tale of a British Army Infantry Company, closed on Broadway after a brief run in 2007. War Horse picked up the slack for a while, but given the popular emergence of TV dramas like Downtown Abbey, there would seem to be a widened space for a theatrical exploration of the war to end all wars and its devastating impact, whether on the battlefield or on the home front.
In his new play, The Snow Geese, Sharr White chooses the domestic route, and an unusual one at that; it all takes place during a family's annual hunting party at a lodge in Upstate New York. The family in question is the Gaeslings, whose patriarch Ted passed away a couple of months ago, leaving behind his wife Elizabeth and two boys, the brooding Arnold and the eldest, Duncan, who is about to join the American forces overseas. Thrown into the mix are Elizabeth's sister Clarissa, and her German-born husband Max, who's been forced to abandon his medical practice in the wake of nationalistic hysteria.
It seems that the departed Ted has left his family on the brink of financial ruin, with a pile of unpaid debts and nothing in the way of cash. Arnold figured this out by reading the family books, but nobody wants to listen, least of all Elizabeth. If they don't, though, the family is likely to lose all of its property, putting everyone's future and reputation at risk. Thus begins the drama.
The play and the production are decked in the trappings of the era, and with an elegant set by John Lee Beatty, it's pleasant enough to spend a couple of hours in the Gaesling lodge. But the plot passes through without producing much believable tension, and it's as if the script had been assembled by consulting a checklist of dramatic tropes: a widow on the edge of a breakdown, an immature eldest son coming of age, a maid from a poor country who knows more than she lets on, zany but lovable in-laws. All the elements, in other words, are there. But the chemistry is not. By the time, late in act two, that it starts digging deeper in to the era's social themes--- Elizabeth expounding on "why society exists" and Max griping about his plight as a German--- you might find yourself wincing, as I did, at the clumsiness and over-breadth of the dialogue.
Mary-Louise Parker's performance as Elizabeth, though uneven, gives us every reason to hope that this remarkable actress will stick around New York for a while. It's always great to see Broadway veterans Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark, and as Clarissa and Max, they radiate plenty of warmth. Brian Cross is solid as Arnold, while Evan Jonigkeit makes the most of Duncan, the play's most problematic role.
The Snow Geese invites superficial comparisons to Chekhov, and it would be hard to reach this exalted standard even under the best of circumstances. This is not, alas, the domestic World War I drama we've been waiting for. But perhaps, with a more lively, character-driven script, one will arrive on Broadway soon.