By Karen Isaacs
Why are so many modern American playwrights, writing new works that are heavily influenced by and referential to Chekhov? Not that I object, since I enjoy Chekhov. But in the last three years we have seen Christopher Durang’s Sonya and Vanya and Masha and Spike plus Sharr White’s The Snow Geese and now Donald Marguilies’ new play The Country House. The latter is getting a smashing production at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman theater.
The Country House is a play about actors and a play about family. It has definite overtones to plays by Anton Chekhov, particularly The Seagull but it also stands on its own.
The play is set in a gorgeous home in Williamstown, Mass, which happens to be the location for a very well-known and respected summer theater festival. It is owned by Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner) a well known and respected actress who will performing at the Festival. She is mostly known as a stage actress but she is aging. For the last year, she has been mourning the death of her daughter — also a well known actress. Her son, Elliot, is also in residence as is her granddaughter, Susie — the only member of the family with no interest in show business.
Both Susie and Elliot are upset that Anna has invited to the home Walter, her daughter’s widower, a film director and his new girl friend who he is planning on marrying. Supposedly the family is gathering to mark the one year anniversary of the daughter’s death.
Almost as soon as the play gets underway, Anna mentions that she has run into a very popular and attractive younger actor and has invited him to stay for a few days until his theater housing is available. Michael Astor had been an intern at the Festival and worked with Anna; he had had an affair with her daughter; and now he is a major TV star returning to the stage — as perhaps “penance” for his fame and fortune.
With that set up revealed early in act one, you can see the possible complications. Susie had a crush on Michael, Anna perhaps also finds him desirable. Neither Susie nor Eliot are happy to have Walter there and upon meeting Walter’s fiancé Nell, Elliot realizes that they had a platonic “thing” while both were acting at the Humana Festival many years ago in Louisville.
If Anna is the central character as the matriarch of the family, Elliot is the catalyst. It is his confrontations and connections to the other characters that drives the play. He is an actor who perhaps sabotages himself at auditions; he now proclaims he is a “playwright” and is writing his magnum opus — a symbolic drama — and he self-medicates with alcohol and drugs. It is his vitriolic attacks on Walter, Michael and Nell that fuels the family drama. Of course, the sex appeal of Michael helps stir things up as well.
During the two and half-hours each of the characters reveal their hopes, dreams, insecurities and compromises. There are tears but there are also laughs.
The entire cast as directed by Daniel Sullivan is terrific. But special recognition must go to Danner and Eric Lange as Elliot. Danner manages to be theatrical without being artificial or superficial. Lange, who at times reminded me of Paul Giammatti, shows us Elliot’s uncertainties masked by anger and cynicism. After all, he was the least successful in this family of actors. Sarah Steele plays Susie as the grumpy, out-of-sorts post-adolescent she is: grieving her mother and angry at her father. One flaw is that Steele swallows some of her lines. As Walter and Nell, David Rasche and Kate Jennings Grant are fine. A curiosity of the play is the lack of father-daughter rapport shown in either the acting or the lines between Susie and Walter. These two do not seem related. Daniel Sunjata has the role of the sexy and very successful Michael Astor and he carries it off with modesty but just a hint of total self-confidence and self-awareness.
By the way, the country house set by John Lee Beatty is one that I would delighted to live in. It has an informal feel but you can tell it is comfortable and large.
The Country House runs through Nov. 23. Tickets are available through Telecharge.