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A CurtainUp Review
The Country Girl
By Elyse Sommer
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).