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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Country House

"Here you are back in Williamstown, right on schedule, where all ambivalent successful actors come for absolution, and then fly home to Hollywood cleansed and virtuous. It's the Williamstown cure, better than a high colonic.— Walter to Michael Astrov
County House
Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner (Photo: Michael Lamont)
The country house stands as a symbol of peace and privilege, a place to get away from the hustle, bustle, and drama of day-to-day life. The same goes for Donald Margulies' new play. It's a pleasant destination spot for those seeking refinement and refreshment. But for greater risk and reward, a Chekhov play might be in order.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been a major Chekhov production here since the Center Theatre Group's starry The Cherry Orchard with Annette Bening and Alfred Molina nearly a decade ago. Instead, we've been treated to a parade of contemporary mash-ups and adaptations.

Center Theatre Group just had a boffo hit with Christopher Durang's buffa Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike which takes its basic plot from Uncle Vanya. Aaron Posner's Stupid Fucking Bird, which is "sort of adapted from The Seagull," opens this week at Boston Court. And most auspiciously, the Geffen is hosting the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner Margulies' The Country House.

It's built on a solid foundation of fraught relationships. Anna (Blythe Danner) has returned to her New England getaway to perform at the Williamstown Theater Festival, her old stomping ground. She's invited her former co-star Michael Astor (Scott Foley), now a TV celebrity and global do-gooder, to stay over while his sublet is fumigated. Her son Elliot (Eric Lange), an unsuccessful actor, and granddaughter Susie, who's always had a crush on Michael, are more permanent residents.

Anna's also invited her former son-in-law Hollywood film director Walter (David Rasche) for the weekend. He's brought his young fiancee, Nell (Emily Swallow). This doesn't please either Walter's daughter Susie, whose mother just passed away a year ago, or Elliot, who's been infatuated with Nell when they acted together years ago.

While most of The Country House is built from a Vanya blueprint, Anna and the new playwriting zeal of Elliot are droppings from The Seagull. Yet the characters make complete sense as contemporary types. In fact, knowledge of Chekhov isn't necessary to enjoy the serio-comic scenes of thwarted connections. After all, these theater folk working at a theater company that specializes in the good doctor's works never even mention him.

By contrast, the more free-wheeling comedy of Durang's work allows his characters to acknowledge their debt to Chekhov. Doing so helps clear the air and, ironically, lets them go on to establish their own free-standing identity. Here, the omission contributes to a unsettled sense, if you know the originals, that the house stands stuck in limbo between Chekhov and Margulies, between homage and hodgepodge.

The tone wavers. Rueful character-based comedy flips to farce in the final moments of act one. Until this point, Margulies has narrowed the scope from the template in every way. There's one location and no minor roles, which in the original represent multiple classes and professions. While this keeps the budget down and increases the possibility of numerous productions, it also helps lower the ceiling on the range of expression.

With Chekhov's all-encompassing powers of observation, multiple tones are present at all times. Each rises to the surface in turn as the wide-ranged circumstances dictate. Margulies, on the other hand, keeps things bubbling along pleasantly, but then lurches to a moment of broad comedy in a bit of farcical plotting rather than Chekhov's character-based action.

In the second act, the increasingly desperate Elliot takes violent action, echoing Vanya. Because comedy has been emphasized, the darker turn doesn't draw empathy. Margulies' other changes from the original also tend to hurt more than help.

He makes it difficult to identify with Elliot by merging aspects of both Vanya and Seagull's Konstantin. Like the latter, Elliot's stab at a new profession, playwriting, serves as an adolescent attempt to get a rise out of his mother. Her anger means she's at least paying attention. This works in Seagull because he's still a young man.

Elliot though, like Vanya, is approaching middle age, so his mommy fixation just seems pathetic. And unlike Seagull, we experience little of the play. As such, we assume he's deluded himself into thinking he has any talent.

If the emotional stakes were raised more often, it might be easier to be stirred by Elliot's eventual violent outburst. Instead, Sullivan makes sure most every moment until then is as pleasant as a light summer's breeze. Margulies' characters may have greater depth, but the production stays on the slick surface. The same problem limited the effect of other recent Sullivan projects like his Broadway revivals of Orphans and Glengarry Glen Ross.

Still, he's drawn warmly accessible performances from his cast and lovely work from his designers. John Lee Beatty once again creates a detailed, elegant home worth moving into. Danner remains a paragon of charm. Sarah Steele and Eric Lange give glimmers of conflicted emotions which show they might be capable of being magesterially Chekhovian, if only Sullivan or Margulies would let them.

The production will get a Broadway remount this fall. It's a fixer-upper, so let's hope they dig the foundations a bit deeper. As is, this Country House is a nice place to visit. But I doubt Chekhov would want to live here.

The Country House
by Donald Margulies
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Cast: Blythe Danner, Scott Foley, Eric Lange, David Rasche, Sarah Steele, Emily Swallow
Set design by John Lee Beatty
Costume design by Rita Ryack
Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski
Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes including one intermission
Runs through July 13 at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90024 (310) 208-5454
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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