Donald Margulies’ “The Country House” is a play of warmth, compassion and wit. It is also a script of angst and frustrations. Capping off the tale with a surprise ending, Margulies has created an old-fashioned drawing room play which tells a tale with humor and pathos.
Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his “Dinner With Friends,” has a way with words. His characters, much like those of Anton Chekhov, carry on conversations filled with natural, rather than esoteric and poetic phrases.
Even though “The Country House” is filled with many supposed stage and television personages who often speak “theater talk,” the characters are not fake or forced. They are real people, with real issues affected by their careers, life’s ups-and-downs, and confusing relationships.
“The Country House” takes place in the comfortable home of Anne Patterson, a well known, aging actress. She is the grandé dame of a family bound by experiences and secrets, including tales of lovers and ex-lovers, who are united in mourning the recent death of Anne’s talented and revered daughter.
In the four-day span, the extended family wrestles with their personal and interpersonal issues.
Susie, Anne’s granddaughter, resents that her father, a well-known theatre and film producer, has brought his girlfriend to her mother’s former home.
Handsome Michael, a long time family friend, who is appearing at the nearby Williamstown Theatre Festival, has been invited to stay at the Keegan compound. His reputation as a lothario, adds an element of sensual struggle among the women.
Elliot, Anne’s brother, a “failed” son and frustrated actor turned playwright, adds his personal drama to the goings on, as does Anne, herself.
The performance is nicely staged and paced by director Daniel Sullivan. As secrets are revealed, and bonds are attacked, created, recreated, and broken, both humor and drama reign supreme, creating the needed interest to grab and hold the audience’s attention. A series of individual sexually charged incidents concerning Susie, Anna and Nell, all with Michael, are delightfully conceived. Especially effective is the play’s emotional ending.
The transition between scenes is well choreographed, bridging the parts together, creating a whole, rather than segmented parts.
Technical aspects aid in developing the story. A storm, complete with realistic thunder, lightening and rain, effectively places the right emotional dampness on the actions. John Lee Beatty’s New England comfortable rustic living room, with a view of the outside, puts the action in the required realistic setting.
On her first entrance Blythe Danner received an ovation. Interestingly, in the curtain call, the major applause was given to Sarah Steele and Eric Lange. It wouldn’t surprise if both get best supporting actor Tony nominations.
That’s not to say Danner is ineffective. The two-time Tony winner is excellent, but her role doesn’t have the emotional highs and lows that draws attention to the performer, no matter her skill level. As written, Anna is a self-centered woman whose career is fading and who has lost her favorite child to cancer. She has endured a year of grief and has chosen to live her real life in a controlled way, deciding to release her emotions on stage in her upcoming stage role in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” Danner’s performance walks the line between awareness and depression with skill.
Steele has a fine sense of both comedic and dramatic timing. She creates Susie into a sensitive young lady, far wiser than her young years. The character is the fulcrum on which the play balances and Steele carries the load with creative effectiveness.
Lange shows great depth of angst as the self-and-other put-upon Elliot, who has turned to alcohol and drugs in his attempt to dull his insecurities. His performance, especially in the final scene, is multi-textured and compelling.
Daniel Sunjata, who is known for his portrayal of the charismatic, often sinister undercover FBI agent, Paul Briggs, in television’s “Graceland,” handles the role of the sex-symbol celebrity, Michael, with ease and style. Supposedly noted as a womanizer, he is, in fact chased by women, rather than visa versa.
David Rasche, as Anne’s son-in-law, and the husband of the recently dead Kathy, and Kate Jennings Grant, as his finance, Nell, give convincing performances.
Capsule judgement: With its fine cast, including two potential Tony best supporting actor performances (Sarah Steele and Eric Lange), a Broadway legend (Blythe Danner), and a nicely textured story line, “The Country House” is a play well worth seeing. And, with its interesting story, single set, small cast, and good roles, it will get lots of productions at community theatres.
“The Country House,” is playing at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 131 West 55th St (between 6th & 7th Avenues), through November 23, 2014.