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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE COUNTRY HOUSE
at the Samuel J. Friedman

THEATER PEOPLE
By MATT WINDMAN

  Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner/ Ph: Joan Marcus

There’s a scene in Donald Margulies’ three-act family drama The Country House, which is now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway following a premiere run at California’s Geffen Playhouse, where a bunch of theater professionals are uncomfortably forced to tell an out-of-work middle-aged actor turned aspiring playwright (Eric Lange) that his debut piece, which just received an informal living room reading, is pretty damn awful and amateurish. (Who in the theater hasn’t been in that same situation at some point?) Even more awkward is the fact that he used the piece as a way to express his pent-up frustration at his mother, who happened to be participating in the reading.
 
The Country House may not be as bad as the play within it apparently is, but it is certainly not up to Margulies’ standard of excellence in terms of nuanced character development, intimate settings, contemporary issues and unpredictable dramatic structure (i.e. the Pulitzer-winning Dinner with Friends, Time Stands Still, Sight Unseen, Collected Stories). You can’t help but wonder if Manhattan Theatre Club, which has produced so many far better plays by Margulies, went ahead with The Country House just out of loyalty to the playwright.
 
Set in – you guessed it – a country house, owned by a renowned, aging stage actress (Blythe Danner) that happens to be adjacent to the popular Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, it explores the upheaval that ensues among her extended family when a popular, handsome TV actor (Daniel Sunjata) arrives to stay with them for a few nights.  
 
Nothing much happens at first besides the slow introduction of each character and their status (or lack thereof) in the show business world. At one point, three women of three different generations (Danner, Kate Jennings Grant, Sarah Steele) either make a move on the TV actor or come pretty close to it. The second act culminates in the emotional breakdown of the actress’ middle-aged son. There’s also an amusing rant by a director (David Rasche) about the pretentiousness of theater people and in defense of commercially lucrative Hollywood flicks. It may be satirical, but the genuineness and playfulness of that single moment pops out against the artificiality and emptiness of the rest of the play.
 
In a way, there are several interesting scenarios within The Country House that could provide for more than one satisfying drama. Perhaps it could be reworked by Margulies to focus more intently on a single character and his or her journey. But as of now, it comes off as an affectionate but weak, muddled and predictable family drama that depends too obviously on clichés and devices lifted from The Seagull (ignored son lashing out against his famous actress mother, actress attracted to a younger man and trying to stay relevant) and Uncle Vanya (young woman tied down to physically deteriorating has-been and being jealously pursued by another man). (For a far better modern take on Chekhov, check out, if you haven’t already, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.)
 
Directed by Daniel Sullivan with his standard attention to detail and truthful performances, the production might at least be pleasant for those who really like Danner, insider theater references and/or a fashionably rustic country house setting.

 


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