Monday, October 13, 2014

The Country House: Chekhov in the Berkshires

Blythe Danner in The Country House (Photo by Joan Marcus)

In Donald Margulies’s new play, The Country House, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Blythe Danner plays Anna Patterson, the matriarch of a theatrical family. A famous actress, Anna has returned to the Williamstown Theatre Festival – and to her summer home in the Berkshires – a year after losing her daughter, also an actor, to cancer. The family assembles in this house of memories. Anna’s son Elliot Cooper (Eric Lange) is a difficult, obstreperous man who can’t get parts because no one wants to work with him and who has stumbled into middle age without finding a romantic partner. At this juncture he’s suddenly decided to become a playwright; he’s planning to ask his unsuspecting family to read his first effort aloud. His brother-in-law Walter Keegan (David Rasche), who parlayed a successful career as a stage director into an even more enviable one as a filmmaker, shows up with his new, younger fiancée, Nell McNally (Kate Jennings Grant) – also an actress – a beauty whom everyone is drawn to despite their discomfort with the way Walter has moved on so speedily after the death of his wife. Nell draws the admiration of both Elliot – who acted with her one summer, years earlier, and has romanticized that brief friendship into unrequited love – and another celebrity appearing that summer in Williamstown, Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), the star of a hit sci-fi TV series whom Anna, with motives that are not entirely pure, has invited to sleep on the living-room couch while his house is being fumigated. The only person in the house who isn’t charmed by Nell is Walter’s daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), a Yale student, the only character on stage without either a theatrical career or an interest in obtaining one. Susie is incensed at what she sees as her father’s disloyalty to her mother’s memory, and when Michael falls for Nell, she has even more reason to hate her stepmother-to-be, since she’s had a crush on the handsome actor since she was a little girl.

If the scenario sounds familiar, of course it is: Margulies has refitted Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, though he’s stitched in a few yards of material from The Sea Gull. Anna’s role doesn’t have an equivalent in Vanya; she’s really Arkadina, which means that Elliot is double-cast as Vanya and Treplev – at one point he even quotes Treplev – and Michael is too, as Astrov and Trigorin. (Margulies recreates the crucial – and highly theatrical – third-act scenes from The Sea Gull between Arkadina and her son and Arkadina and her lover. Michael never actually sleeps with Anna, but she throws herself at him in the way Arkadina throws herself at Trigorin in order to woo him away from Nina.) Margulies is very canny; Michael isn’t a doctor like Astrov, but he plays one on television, and the knee injury Walter sustains in act one while he’s jogging with Nell stands in for Serebryakov’s gout. There’s even an interlude where Susie, the Sonia character, begs Michael not to get drunk (and stoned) with her uncle because it isn’t good for him. (In this version he clearly has substance problems.)

Sarah Steele and Eric Lange (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Margulies has a lot of fun with his theatrical allusions. Anna is at the festival playing the title role in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, but years ago, when Michael was a gifted up-and-comer, they co-starred in another Shaw – he played Marchbanks to her Candida (Walter directed), and she would like to think of him once again as her younger swain. But he’s in Williamstown to play The Actor in Molnar’s The Guardsman, the play-acting seducer role in a sex farce about theatre folk. The dialogue in The Country House is full of backstage quips, some of them quite witty; they’re not as juicy as ones Terrence McNally has updated for the current Broadway revival of It’s Only a Play, but unlike McNally’s they seem to be about something besides their own cleverness. (Nathan Lane is hilarious as an actor in It’s Only a Play – a narcissist among narcissists – but I was put off by the self-adoring quality of the banter, and in truth it isn’t a play at all, just an endlessly unspooling series of bitchy one-liners. The audience around me kept breaking up over them, but I ducked out after what seemed like an interminable first act: ninety straight minutes without anything remotely resembling dramatic structure.) The characters in The Country House are seasoned and intelligent; they’re conscious that their hopelessly intertwined lives are inescapably a play, though they come short of pointing out that they’re reinventing Chekhov. Nell does have the wit to remark to Walter, after a few nights in Anna’s manse, that she feels like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca.

The Country House is fairly enjoyable, but Margulies doesn’t pull off the trick of making the characters’ predicaments moving as well as comically ridiculous – that is, the trick of emulating Chekhov. And though his dialogue is ingenious, not all of it is convincing. There’s too much exposition (the first act is nothing but), and when Susie complains, in act two, that her father sounds like a Lifetime movie, you can’t help thinking that if he does, it’s because Margulies couldn’t devise any other way for Walter to convey his feelings for Nell. He does his most skillful writing in act three, and this time around he gives Walter the best speeches, but this is the truth-telling act, and it’s too heavily weighted. (It’s also the act in which Elliot tries to choke Walter, just as Vanya tries to shoot the professor.)

But my most frequent complaint about contemporary plays is that they strand talented performers, and you can’t argue that Margulies doesn’t give his actors enough to do. Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction everyone is showcased. The only actor I’d say is hobbled by the way her character has been written is Steele, whom fans of The Good Wife will recognize from her recurring role as Eli Gold’s daughter. Steele has an appealing ironic presence, but in the first act, when Susie is commenting bemusedly to Michael on his career and his habit of dating models, you can’t help observing that this Ivy League undergrad is being an unremitting pain in the ass. It may occur to you later that her behavior comes out of feelings for him that she knows he can never reciprocate, but Margulies hasn’t written the scene well enough for glimmers of her heartache to slip through her jibes, and Steele hasn’t found a way to play it so they do.

Kate Jennings Grant and David Rasche (Photo by Joan Marcus)
All five of the other actors are excellent, especially Lange and Rasche and most especially Danner. Danner is the greatest American actress who still treats the stage as her primary venue, but the last time I saw her – in last season’s The Commons of Pensacola, also for MTC – the play was dispiriting, and I wondered if there were going to be many more roles deserving of her, given the sad fate of aging actress in this country. (The fact that she’s still a luminous beauty doesn’t factor in; it hasn’t done much for Michelle Pfeiffer lately.) So seeing her play a character as complex as Anna, whose anguish for her lost daughter is balanced by her dismissive treatment of her far less successful son, is gratifying. I once saw Danner as Chekhov’s Arkadina – opposite Christopher Walken as Grigorin, in an otherwise mediocre Williamstown mounting of The Sea Gull that starred her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, as Nina (a role Danner herself had played there, famously, decades earlier, in a performance that has been preserved, thank heaven, in a TV transcription). But I don’t think she was finer in the actual role of Arkadina than she is here in the scene where Anna expresses her anguish while unmistakably playing a scene for Elliot at the same time. The key to Danner’s portrayal – to both its wit and its poignancy – is Anna’s Broadway-star awareness, even when she taps into her deepest (and darkest) feelings, that the people around her are a built-in audience. Danner is an actress of startling elegance but without vanity, yet she’s brilliant at illuminating the point where her character’s vanity intersects with her emotions. She has a number of terrific moments, like the one early in act two when she tells Susie that she deals with the absence of Susie’s mother by pretending she’s just off on location somewhere, or another where she answers Michael’s flattery (“You’re sensational”), which she knows is a sort of booby prize for not exciting his sexual interest, with a sharp-edged “That’s sweet of you to say” that sounds like vintage Bette Davis. Danner is a star playing a star, and this is star acting of a caliber that you rarely get to see. Whatever the play’s faults are, it’s hard not to feel gratitude to Margulies for giving Danner a true vehicle.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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