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A CurtainUp Review
The Country House

. . . here you are, back in Williamstown, right on schedule. Where all ambivalent successful actors come for absolution. Return to their roots, remind themselves why they got into this business in the first place, work their asses off — for nothing — then fly home to Hollywood, cleansed and virtuous. The Williamstown Cure: Better than a high colonic!
— Walter to Michael the actor turned TV star, who's in rehearsals for a brief run in Molnar's The Guardsman at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Walter has himself gone Hollywood with a series called Truck Stop now in its third season
The Country House
Blythe Danner (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Donald Margulies's can't be faulted for lack of ambition in his new dramedy The Country House. It's a tribute to not just one but two of Chekhov's most popular and frequently produced dramas, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.

Like both these Chekhovian classics, familial tensions explode in a country house. Like The Seagull, the aptly named Margulies à la Chekhov play is also about theater people, successful and otherwise. This gives Margulies a chance to work in a lot of insider shoptalk about Broadway and Hollywood; as well as the Williamstown Theatre Festival, near which his country house is located.

The problem is that, though Margulies is one of the contemporary theater's most astute chroniclers of troubled relationships (he won a pulitzer for Dinner With Friends), this mashup of Chekhov's famous characters ends up being something of a poor cousin to the work of its honoree.

Though true to Chekhov's blend of comedy and tragedy, the comic elements here too often feel like TV sitcom banter with canned laughter to jump start the audience's laugh meter. As for the tragedy, it only occasionally and briefly tugs at the viewer's heartstrings.

Director Daniel Sullivan capably steers the class A cast through the various eruptions of hostility, sadness and frustrated sexual yearnings. With that master creator of interiors theater goers would love to live in themselves, the the country house in which it all plays out is move-in lovely.

The Margulies plot is a pleasant enough diversion even for those who've never seen Uncle Vanya or The Seagull. But the fun is really in playing "spot the Chekhov characters and references. And there's plenty to spot, starting with a question about a Masha-like character wearing black (which is rather lame without the classic "I'm in mourning for my life") and ending with "all gone."

The Berkshires summer home of the title is owned by aging but still stage and screen star Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner as the updated Madame Arkadina of The Sea Gull). She's in Williamstown to perform in the Williamtown Theatre Festival's revival of Mrs. Warren's Profession by G.B. Shaw who also wrote his share of country home plays).

The Festival role also marks her return to acting after a year of mourning for her daughter Kathy, a movie star. It's to commemorate the anniversary her death that Anna has asked other family members to spend the weekend with her. Kathy's daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), is the only one not in or planning to be in the theater. Brother Elliot (Eric Lange) is a kvetchy, unhappy wannabe who's latest try to be more than the family loser resulted in his writing a pretentious highbrow play. Kathy's husband Walter (David Rasche)is accompanied by his new lady love Nell (Kate Jennings Grant) and Anna has invited a last-minute house guest, actor Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata) who's starred as a doctor of a TV sitcom for ten years (think George Clooney) and is also in Williamstown to warm up his live stage muscles. Not so incidentally, Michael once played Anna's young suitor in Candida and was also one of the late Kathy's lover

To stir the tragi-comic stew there's Susie's resentment towards her father's new love, Elliot's envious putdowns of Walter and Michael's success and a disastrous reading of his pretentious play, and an act one finale revealing that all the females on board hanker for sexy Michael 's attentions.

The Chekhov links are so obvious that it's hardly a spoiler to identify Susie as a counterpoint to Masha, Walter and Nell as variations of Uncle Vanya's Alexander Serebriakov and Yelena and Michael Astor as a less self absorbed, more thoughtful, good deed committed version of The Seagull's Trigorin.

Danner is still an actress who, per her own opening statement is "not one whose entrances go unnoticed." She commands your attention throughout. Sarah Steele, brings the sharp and lively presence to this role, as she does as Ely Gold's daughter in The Good Wife. No complaints about Grant, Rashe and Sunjata's performances.

Eric Lange deserves a special hand for shouldering the burden of merging both the self-pitying title character of Uncle Vanya and the and the son aching for his mother's attention in The Seagull. While Margulies' does manage a final image of a grief-united mother, son and granddaughter, he does have Anna/Arkedinal tell her needy son that she doesnt find him interesting. I'm afraid, that's how I felt about the comings and goings of all these characters.

The Country House by Donald Margulies
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: 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).
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Rita Ryack
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Sound Design:Peter Golub
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: James FitzSimmons;
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one Intermission
MTC Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street
From 9/09/14; opening 10/02/14; closing 12/09/14.

Tuesday and Wednesday @7pm, Thursday, Friday and Saturday @8pm Wednesday and Saturday @2pm Sunday @2pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 3rd press performance
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