by Cory Conley · October 7, 2014
Daniel Sunjata, Blythe Danner | Joan Marcus
As you might have guessed from its title, Donald Margulies' new play, The Country House, takes place entirely in a living room--- specifically, a well-appointed living room in the Berkshires. That's where a golden theater actress named Anna Patterson has camped out for the Williamstown Theater Festival, the last place left where she can be considered a genuine star.
Anna shares the house with her granddaughter, Susie. They both recently lost Anna's daughter (and Susie's mother) Kathy, who was a movie star and a great beauty. Kathy's widower, Walter, is a successful filmmaker, and he soon arrives with a pretty young girlfriend named Nell. Thrown into the mix is Elliot, Anna's underachieving son who hopes to transition from acting to playwriting, having just finished a new script. Finally, there's the gorgeous television actor Michael Astor, who's crashing on Anna's couch for a few days and has the charisma and abs to shake up more than a few lives.
If the description sounds a tad creaky and obvious, it's still a play by Margulies, who has amply demonstrated skill at finding rich layers of emotional depth in ordinary life. And The Country House is a knowing mashup of the major works of Anton Chekhov, particularly The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, which also featured a rustic setting, the motif of discontentment, and in the case of The Seagull, plenty of narcissistic theater people.
But Margulies never quite gets there. The familiar setups here add up to less than sizzling drama, and by the time the curtain falls, you feel as if it barely began. The plot is full of familiar sex comedy tropes, awkwardly blended with the generic pathos of a family in mourning. It doesn't help that these folks are in showbiz, because the punchlines and the arguments (about "selling out to Hollywood" and such) feel even less fresh and compelling. It's the theatrical equivalent of plain yogurt with a side of plain white toast.
The malaise also seems to have infected the cast. Trapped between the Chekhovian archness of their characters and the more earth-bound dialogue provided by Margulies, the gifted performers here (including Daniel Sunjata and Sarah Steele) give muted and tentative performances. One exception is Blythe Danner, as Anna, who relishes each flirty glance and zinger, though for a script that feels like an glitzy star vehicle, she's given less stage time than you might expect.
While watching The Country House, it's nearly impossible to banish from your mind Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang's much more rewarding riff on Chekhov from last year. Beyond the thematic similarities, though, the comparison is instructive. What Vanya proved is that even a Broadway play with major commercial ambition has to take some risks in order to succeed. The Country House is well-meaning, but it plays it far too safe.