Now Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies (“Dinner with Friends”) has returned to Manhattan Theatre Club with his latest play, “The Country House,” a homage to both Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” as well as “The Seagull.” A clever idea, yet Daniel Sullivan’s production with Blythe Danner, Daniel Sunjata and David Rasche seems to be too slavish in following the plotting of the Chekhov play. The events which are credible enough seem contrived rather than natural to the characters and storyline. And the emotional underpinnings seem to be very much absent.
Once you notice that the “The Country House” is a contemporary merging of “Uncle Vanya” and “The Seagull,” it is difficult to get it out of your head or not to know where it is going. Stage star Anna Patterson (Danner), an actress of a certain age who worries that she is not as young as she once was,has come to her Berkshire summerhouse on the first anniversary of her daughter’s death to prepare for the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s revival of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” Her whole family is gathering for the anniversary: her granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), a college student; her son-in-law Walter (Rasche), once a stage director now famous for action pictures; and her 44-year-old son Elliot (Eric Lange), an unemployed actor who now fancies himself a playwright.
However, this weekend several outsiders are to be there which will change the dynamics of a family gathering: Walter has brought his younger beautiful new girlfriend Nell (Kate Jennings Grant) whom Elliot has been in love with for 11 years since they did a play together in Louisville and who he has never gotten over. In the meantime, Anna has run into colleague Michael Astor, now a television star on a long running sci-fi/doctor series as well as an international heart throb, and invited him to stay as long as necessary as his accommodations are not ready while he prepares to rehearse Molnar’s “The Guardsman.” Not only has Susie been in love with him since she was a child, but both Anna (who played Shaw’s Candida to his Marchbanks at Williamstown 24 years before) and Nell are not immune to his physical attractiveness. And to make matters worse, Susie resents that her father has a beautiful new girlfriend only a year after her mother’s death.
So the weekend is off to an explosive start. And then it turns out that Elliot (like Konstantin in “The Seagull”) has written his first play and wants all of them to be in a reading. Like Konstantin’s play, it is experimental but also it is his revenge on his mother who he thinks has never loved him. The family reaction to this maiden effort allows Elliot to vent against his mother as well as his brother-in-law who has never used him in a movie.
Margulies has very successfully merged the two Chekhov plots into a contemporary drawing room comedy. However, he has missed the emotions that make them work. In “Uncle Vanya” the title character resents his fectlessbrother-in-law’s success but is himself both comic and pitiable. In “The Seagull,” when young Konstantin presents his first play before his mother and her friends he is laughably theyoung rebel purposely criticizing the type of commercial theater that has made his mother famous. In “The Country House,” Elliot is bitter, self-pitying, with an enormous chip on his shoulder and jealous of those who have made it. The others finally tell him he has been obnoxious all weekend nor is the audience able to have any sympathy for him. At 44, he has no accomplishments whichare no one’s fault but his own. Lange does not bring any sympathy to the role and it is difficult to see him as Margulies’ Uncle Vanya.
Michael Astor, on the other hand, is both Margulies’ Dr. Astrov having to fight women off (“Uncle Vanya”) and his Trigorin, an artist who has sold out for commercial success(“The Seagull”). While Michael is described by the others from their reading of the tabloids as being irresistible to women with many beautiful models for girlfriends, Sanjata is extremely bland where he needs to be magnetic. Ironically, he has been more sexy and charismatic in “Take Me Out,” the baseball play, in which he had no romantic scenes. When he talks of the charitable work he does in the Congo several times a year building schools, he seems pretentious, seeking to build up his image, rather than passionately committed.
Nell, Walter’s new girlfriend, is represented as one of those drop dead gorgeous women that takes your breath away but who does not herself believe she is beautiful and is a serious person at heart. As written, Grant does not have much to say that reveals any inner life other than that she envies Michael his work in the Congo.
Sullivan who has directed a great many new plays like “The Columnist,””Good People,””Rabbit Hole,” “SightUnseen” and “Proof” to both critical and popular acclaim seems to have lost his footing here. Of course, the production has his usual polish but either his casting or his rhythms are off and the play suffers for it. Even the usually reliable Danner seems to have little to do though this maybe the fault of the author. One of the production’s positive aspects is the John Lee Beatty set, a country house that everyone in the audience will envy even though it looks thoroughly lived in. Rita Ryack’s contemporary costumes are exactly what these successful theater people would wear in their private lives. Obadiah Eaves (sound) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) make the rain storm and its aftermath completely believable. Thomas Schall is responsible for the effective fight scene which is one of the climaxes of the play.
“The Country House” is an old-fashioned drawing room comedy about theater and film people inspired by the plays of Anton Chekhov. From Donald Margulies whose track record includes “Time Stands Still,” “Brooklyn Boy,” “Sight Unseen,” “Dinner with Friends” and “Collected Stories,” we have come to expect something more emotionally satisfying. Blythe Danner, Daniel Sunjata, David Rasche and cast are good company but do not make a very convincing case for this new play.
“The Country House” (extended through November 23, 2014)
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission