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A CurtainUp Review
The Country Girl

Lady, you ride that man like a broom. You're a witch..—Bernie Dodd to Georgie Elgin, having bought into the husband's story of their marital history.

People don't go back to the same life. They go above it or below it, but they don't go back.—Georgie, in another example of Odet's way with zippy one-liners.
Country Girl
Morgan Freeman, and Peter Gallagher (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
African-American actors are having a wonderful season playing roles no one would have cast them in when the plays were written. Only a couple of the servants in the million dollar Mississippi Delta mansion of the current Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are now white. The unhappy married couple in the revival of Come Back Little Sheba is now interracial, and so are the Elgins of The Country Girl, the latest revival of a play from that era, Clifford Odets' The Country Girl. All these African-American actors are cast to take advantage of the actors' popularity not just on stage but with television and film audiences. In The Country Girl, as in its predecessors, the African-Americans casting can also be defined as well-known stage and screen personality casting. In fact, it's the one African-American —Morgan Freeman—who's the box office draw.

All the above mentioned plays are melodramas from the 1950s written by playwrights noted for their distinctively memorable dialogue. The Country Girl, one of Clifford Odets' late and lesser plays, which was nevertheless a big win for both Uta Hagen and Grace Kelly, the former nabbing a Tony in 1950 and the latter an Oscar in 1954. I didn't see the play on stage. However, I do remember crooner Bing Crosby's as an effective alcoholic has-been, the gorgeous young Kelly looking sensationally dowdy, William Holden as a terrific Dodd, and the tunes especially written for Crosby (by, I believe, Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin) as completely forgettable.

The interracial marriage in both Come Back Little Sheba and The Country Girl, actually adds an extra dimension to the marital difficulties at the center of both dramas. However, it's the flavorful dialogue, not the interracial aspect of the troubled marriage of Georgie and Frank Elgin or Morgan Freeman's return to the stage, that accounts for The Country Girl's rising above being a boring dated potboiler.

While Freeman is an imposing presence who physically towers over everyone else on stage, his performance is so understated that there are only a few scenes that reveal the desperate insecurity and cunning charm that make his character interesting. Worse still, if there were a five star measure to rank the chemistry quotient between Frank and Georgie (Frances McDormand) it would, at most, be a two.

Frances McDormand, also a superb stage and screen actor, succeeds in creating a Georgie who defies comparisons with Kelly (or Hagen, or Maureen Stapleton of the 1972 revival). While she is a master of wry characterization and knows how to say much without words, her performance doesn't really blossom fully until the second act. Instead the actor who gets fully into the Odets spirit immediately and makes this familiar and predictable backstage drama feel new again is Peter Gallagher as Bernie Dodd, the cocky director who's smitten with great plays acting (could the character of Dodd have triggered Nichol's urge to rescue a so-so rated play from the theatrical graveyard?) But while Dodd trusts theater to at least now and then be magical and transformative, a bitter divorce has made him mistrustful of women which makes his relationship with Georgie rocky, at least initially. Whatever chemistry has been left out of the Frankie and Georgie relationship, explodes with a magically surprising kiss.

I should add that while backstage dramas and co-dependent relationships have become overly familiar, Odets was savvy enough to write three richly nuanced characters and a plot that, even though imperfect and ultimately unsurprising, can with the right direction and acting still have you surrender to its melodramatic charms. To recap that plot:
A risk-taking director (Gallagher's Dodd) is certain that actor, Frank Elgin (Freeman) is his ideal lead for the play headed for a Boston tryout— even though Elgin's drinking (prompted by failed efforts to be his own producer and the death of a child) has made him persona non-gratis with most directors. The story's arc thus takes us from Frank's reading for and getting the part, Dodd's and his wife's efforts to keep him off the booze, the inevitable re-encounter with drink (in the form of alcohol heavy cough medicine) leading to the finale that answers the play's three plot driving questions: Can Frank conquer his demons and make a comeback? Is Georgie a truly supportive wife or the more complicated "witch on a broom" seen in some of Frank's confidences to Bernie? Whatever happens, will the Elgin marriage stay intact when after the show completes its run?
. The leading actors are buoyed with excellent support from Chip Zien (hardly recognizable with his slicked down hair) as a bottom line obsessed producer, Remy Auberjonois as an amiable playwright and Anna Camp as a fluttering ingenue. Mike Nichols and his creative team have created three authentic and atmospheric settings. Jon Robin Baitz's script changes seem mostly a case of updating a word here and there. ( I did miss some lines which may have been only in the movie, as when in response to Frank's saying Georgie wasn't always as difficult as she seemed when trying to negotiate Frank's contract, Dodd says "Oh I know, I know. They all start out as Juliets and wind up as Lady Macbeths.")

Having the red Booth curtain slide back and forth for the between scene curtain changes makes for an intriguing visual metaphor to underscore that this is a story that plays out in a theatrical world and to indicate that when the curtain slides open again it will reveal another layer in these complex personalities.

Those who recall that Crosby's Frank as a song and dance man will appreciate the incidental music which includes one featuring Crosby. With that reminder of the movie's semi-musical within the play and Odets having something of a renaissance thanks to the much praised production of Awake and Sing two years ago (review) one can't help wondering how a revival of The Country Girl would have played with a singing Frank and some new songs. After all Golden Boy has already been musicalized (see our review of a revival of Golden Boy, the Musical).

The Country Girl
By Clifford Odets
Directed by Mike Nichols
Material revisions by Jon Robin Baitz
WITH: Morgan Freeman (Frank Elgin), Frances McDormand (Georgie Elgin), Peter Gallagher (Bernie Dodd), Remy Auberjonois (Paul Unger), Anna Camp (Nancy Stoddard), Joe Roland (Ralph), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Larry) and Chip Zien (Phil Cook).
Scenic design by Tim Hatley
Costume design by Albert Wolsky
Lighting design by Natasha Katz
Sound design by Acme Sound Partners
Hair design by David Brian Brown
Stage manager: Barclay Stiff
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue 212/239-6200
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wedensday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
From 4/03/08; opening 4/27/08; closing 7/20/08 Not for ages below 12
Ticket price: Orchestra and Mezzanine (Rows A-G) $100, Mezzanine (Rows H-K) $76.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 4/30/08
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