The Country House, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, This is a harmless piece of fluff that is beautifully executed but won’t stick to your ribs. Donald Margulies has created a Chekov-light tale about a family of theatre folk who reunite in Williamstown, Massachusetts (home of the Williamstown Theatre Festival where some of these actors actually HAVE performed). It is the one year anniversary of the death of Kathy Patterson, the daughter of Anna (Blythe Danner). Anna is returning to Williamstown to appear in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. She is a mashup of emotions. Still grieving for her daughter, excited to be working again, and stirred up in the romance department.
The subject of her wandering eye is Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata) who is returning to Williamstown while on a break from his successful and mindless television show (again art imitates life). Astor is temporarily without a place to stay as his apartment was infested with bedbugs – and Anna has invited him to lay his head under her roof, so to speak. Also on the lineup is Anna’s granddaughter (Kathy’s daughter) Susie (Sarah Steele), a very smart and insightful person on summer college break. Next up is Walter (David Rasche) a successful B-movie director, and his fiancée Nell (Kate Jennings Grant) who is an unemployed actor. Uncle Elliot (Eric Lange) – son of Anna and brother to Kathy – is the final ingredient in the mix. He is also a thespian,, and failing well at his craft.
Once everyone arrives, the boat sets sail. It soon becomes evident that there is no captain and no plotted course. These people drift in and out of each other’s spheres of reference much as if this were an honest to God farce. Which it isn’t quite. Neither is it a drama. It is both.
Plot questions turn up quickly. The fact that Walter has brought his fiancée to the summer place is never explained. That she is his fiancée is not known to anyone until after they arrive, so why would a family gathering for a one-year anniversary of someone’s death include a new love belonging to the widower. Beats me.
But this is no ordinary fiancée. Turns out that Nell (whose looks are lovely but who is given the burden of being referred to over and over and over again as beautiful) is the focus of Elliot’s 11 year obsession. They were in Louisville in February –
like sole survivors of a nuclear winter. Clung to one another for dear life.
They did everything but sleep together, and Elliot has never gotten over it.
Nell, however, never felt the same way and has now moved on. But she, like the other two women in the house, cannot help but notice Mr. Astor, who notices her back, but it never quite achieves lift off.
Astor is a man torn by success – which is seriously annoying. He can and does have any woman he wants, but they lack substance. The beautiful Nell may offer a chance off that treadmill?
As the motivating catastrophe Elliot brings in his first play and asks his family to do a reading. Seriously. We never see the reading, but we do witness the final stage directions that leave the man character dying in a burning house. The play is so clearly dreadful that when Elliot finally demands feedback from his brother-in-law you know it will turn into a train wreck. And it does.
The boat finally comes back to shore and most everyone staggers off the boat wet and tired but determined. There is some extraordinary dialogue delivered superbly. Margulies knows how to get these people to talk to one another. The observations on life and theatre’s place in it sting like a bee. And Eric Lange delivers the best lines in the show with precision and style.
The evening is not without its moments. Still, there is no center to this gathering. Anna may be the head of house, but hers is not the story pulling this journey along. No one story does. This play is too much like real life. People related by blood and marriage come together and do their best to survive. Then they leave.
As did I.
The Country House
By Donald Margulies; directed by Daniel Sullivan
WITH: Blythe Danner (Anna Patterson), Kate Jennings Grant (Nell McNally), Eric Lange (Elliot Cooper), David Rasche (Walter Keegan), Sarah Steele (Susie Keegan) and Daniel Sunjata (Michael Astor).
Sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Rita Ryack; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Obadiah Eaves; music by Peter Golub; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons; fight director, Thomas Schall; general manager, Florie Seery; production manager, Joshua Helman; artistic line producer, Barclay Stiff. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan, 212-239-6200, thecountryhousebway.com. Through Nov. 9. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.