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A CurtainUp Review
The Country House
By Elyse Sommer
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.