Due to a temporary rift in the space-time continuum, Anton Chekhov was in New York the other day. Never having been to Gotham, he took in a Broadway show: Sharr White’s The Snow Geese, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and starring Mary-Louise Parker. “Something about the name appealed to me,” Chekhov murmured by way of explanation. After final curtain for this melancholy tale of a New York family’s declining fortunes during World War I, the Russian playwright stayed in his seat with furrowed brow. After a while, he asked, “One hundred years have passed, and you still write plays like me? I mean, it’s nice to have a lasting influence, but … has there been no innovation?” When told that The Snow Geese was thought to be an homage to Chekhov and other masters, such as Henrik Ibsen, Chekhov laughed and responded, “Why would anyone do such a thing?”
Why indeed – especially when you can’t pull it off? White is a savvy if not terribly deep writer who has hit upon a formula: Create juicy leads for older actresses, give the script a patina of intellectual seriousness, and you will gets nonprofit slots. The scheme worked for his neuroscience-based psychodrama The Other Place (which starred a passionate Laurie Metcalf), and he tries it again in this period piece, which aims for modern resonance in the passage of well-heeled Americans from the Gilded Age to 20th-century wartime disillusionment. Unfortunately, the play is all billboard messaging and schematic characterization, with none of the human urgency that Chekhov and Ibsen (and O’Neill, for that matter) were able to infuse into their social dramas. We don’t care about the financially ruined Gaesling clan, because the inhabitants of the household are so paper-thin.
Syracuse socialite Elizabeth Gaesling (Parker) lost her husband two months ago to a fatal heart attack. It’s early November and Elizabeth has convened her relatives in the beloved upstate New York hunting lodge. The ménage includes her two adult sons: arrogant playboy Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) and younger, priggish Arnold (Brian Cross). Also on hand are Elizabeth’s pious sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and her kindly, German-born husband, Max (Danny Burstein). Both were driven from their community by anti-German sentiment brought on by the Great War. Pretty Polish maid Viktorya (Jessica Love) hovers on the periphery to remind the others how much worse folks have it back in Europe.
Parker is a luminous, ageless beauty, and the ensemble labors mightily to put across White’s exposition-heavy dialogue and second-rate borrowings from 19th-century clichés (a pistol revealed in the first act will go off in the second), but there’s no denying this is a dull, clunky, derivative affair. And while it’s a joy to see Parker back on the boards, she's too loose and modern to play period women.
On the plus side, John Lee Beatty’s lovingly rendered lodge set and foggy forest exteriors are genuinely breathtaking. In fact, all the design elements are noteworthy. Jane Greenwood’s frocks and suits are handsome and well fitted. Japhy Weideman lights Beatty’s sets for superb, ghostly atmosphere. Rocco DiSanti creates evocative video effects of the title birds flocking away, matched hauntingly with Dan Moses Schreier’s moody sounds. I wish I could have admired these artists’ fine work in the service of a better play. As Chekhov remarked before vanishing into the night, “Your dramaturgy is sadly outmoded; but your stage machinery is quite impressive.”
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York.