There are plenty of good, compelling, even riveting plays about the travails of well-to-do white people – Hamlet, Hedda Gabler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to name a few of the most obvious. Alas, The Snow Geese, a new prettily staged period drama by Sharr White, seems, by way of contrast, almost to be trying to embody the criticisms so often hurled at theatrical classics – too rarefied, too irrelevant, too homogenous, too dull – without any of their redeeming virtues.
Set in a regally rustic family hunting lodge in Upstate New York during World War I, the drama follows the adventures of the Gaesling family, gathered there a few months after the death of their dashing, irresponsible pater familias (Christopher Innvar) to have one last shooting party before the family’s older son, Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) goes off to war. In addition to Duncan’s mother, the shrill, distraught socialite widow Elizabeth (Mary-Louise Parker), also present are younger brother Arnold (Brian Cross), who’s always been pushed aside to let Duncan shine; the boys’ religious aunt Clarissa (Victoria Clark); and her husband, a German expatriate doctor named Max (Dannny Burstein). Dancing attendance on the Gaeslings (if you’ve missed the symbolism, it's the Danish word for goslings) is an eastern European refugee serving as their maid, pretty, ethereal Viktorya (Jessica Love). Duncan, who’s apparently the image of his father, has received a gentleman’s education at prep school and Princeton, in the hopes that he’ll bring the family glory, while Arnie, inexplicably, has been educated much less glamorously at home. But in the months following their father’s death, Arnie’s the one who’s been going over the family books and has discovered that their supposed wealth is a long-since squandered sham – a discovery that seems to come as a shocking surprise to the rest of the family, especially Duncan.
With its attempts to mix pathos and comedy and to contrast the family’s petty turmoil with the chaos of the world at war, the play seems to be consciously evoking Chekhov, while in its avian symbolism and interest in how financial forces affect family dynamics, it draws heavily, too, on Ibsen. But while those two playwrights were masters of dramatic form, compelling characterization and evocative imagery, White here falls short of these illustrious precursors. For starters, the play toys with tropes that seem as though they might lead somewhere: the understandable competition between the two brothers, raised so differently; the plight of Viktorya, touchingly played by Love as a sweet upper-class girl too polite to tell the spoiled family who’s taken her in about starving and seeing friends shot in Europe; and most of all, Uncle Max (played with compassion and conviction by Burstein), whose suffered at the hands of his fellow Americans because, after 30 years in the country, he still has a German accent. But none of these narratives really connect. Each just trails away. Meantime, the plot that does serve as a through line – Arnie’s revelation of the family’s fallen fortunes – frankly, doesn’t make sense. Late in the play, he tells Duncan that it was only when Duncan came home from school that the family opened all the rooms of the house and hired hordes of servants. Otherwise, they lived fairly frugally in only the rooms they needed, with a minimum of help. Clearly Elizabeth and her husband indeed had some idea of their financial situation, though she seems as horrified and incredulous as anyone to hear Arnie’s terrible news. And perhaps most trivial, but most irritating of all, given the detail lavished on the period costumes and graceful set, are the countless anachronisms with which the play is littered.
Brittle and neurotic, Parker’s role is not a very prepossessing one, but she does shine in one, more lighthearted scene, in which she reminisces about her dead husband and we get a sense at least of his lighthearted, loving, playful nature and the charms that won her and may have made all the fiscal irresponsibility feel worth it. Clark is likeable as the pragmatic, goodhearted aunt, and Love’s quizzical headshaking at the behavior of the family she now serves is about as nuanced and well played as the role allows. But Burstein, as the humane and frustrated doctor, is the show’s real star – and its soul. Almost entirely peripheral to the plot’s main action, he nonetheless gives the play what little justification it has to aspire to Chekhovian heights. In the palpable pain her feels at his mistreatment and in his understanding that his nephews will never be able to accept the truths he wants to tell them, he feels like the play’s only adult – and the only thing that makes it feel at once relevant and authentic.