Emily Swallow as Nell and Eric Lange as Elliot. Photo by Michael Lamont
It begins peacefully enough, this new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies. We’re in the Berkshires – outside of Williamsburg, Massachusetts – and the front room where the story unfurls seems comfortable and inviting. But don’t relax just yet.
Susie Keegan (Sarah Steele), home from Yale, isn’t alone for long. Her grandmother, Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner), waltzes in, announcing that she’s run into a young actor friend, Michael Astor (Scott Foley), and has offered to put him up for a couple of nights while his rental is being fumigated. Disheveled Elliot Cooper (Eric Lange) comes down the stairs – he’s Anna’s son, Susie’s uncle – and shortly afterwards Susie’s dad, Walter Keegan (David Rasche), appears with his new girlfriend, Nell McNally (Emily Swallow). And so, a busy handful of actors have now congregated, bringing in their luggage – and their baggage.
The occasion for the gathering, ostensibly at least, is to mark the first anniversary of the death, from cancer, of 41-year-old Kathy, who was mother (to Susie), daughter (to Anna), sister (to Elliot), wife (to Walter), lover (to Michael), and now saintly predecessor (to Nell). Her candle has been snuffed, but the weight of Kathy’s presence lingers.
Well, somewhat. The play circles back to her from time to time, when it isn’t busy squaring off one character against another. Margulies has consciously mined themes and situations from Chekhov (notably “Uncle Vanya” and “The Seagull”), and those familiar with the Russian master may find plenty to smile about. The rest of the audience can only go by what’s spread out on the table rather than what’s also in the kitchen cabinet.
With the exception of Susie, who equates the profession with a virus, all of the actors are actors or, Walter now a movie director, working with actors. Early on, we may even think the play is a gentle sendup of theater people, and there are plenty of one-liners to be savored.
And, in fact, “The Country House” – which one could label a serious comedy – has lots of humor. Young Susie, for example, with her witty repartee, is well on her way to becoming another Dorothy Parker.
Even in an ensemble piece, where’s everyone’s a key element, there’s always somebody who stands out, and in this case it’s slovenly Elliot. He would be insufferable in real life, but he’s refreshing as our lovable cynic, and his sarcasm infuses the play. At least until intermission. The play then veers into more troubling seas – much as the vessel did in Margulies’ “Shipwrecked!” – which diffuses the levity and the buoyancy, and not exactly for the better.
Which is also to say that a lovable cynic is one thing, a pathetic cynic quite another, although the constant here is Lange’s exquisite performance. For that matter, where’s the casting director? Come here, Phyllis Schuringa, and let us give you a hand.
Now, why is there so much tension in the air? Easy. Let’s connect a few dots. Elliot acted in a play with Nell many years earlier, and fell in love with her (she never reciprocated). Susie resents Nell – and her father for having a new girlfriend so soon after the death of her mother. Elliot also resents Walter, for abandoning meaningful theater and opting for commercial films like “Truck Stop 3.” Elliot resents his mother as well for encouraging Kathy’s acting ambitions but never his. Anna resents the loss of her thespian acumen, not to mention her fading seductive charm (Michael’s a linchpin in this scenario). There’s more, but what’s interesting here, and compelling, is that whenever there are more than two characters on stage there’s also at least one silent dialogue rumbling below the one that’s being spoken. It’s not just a good script that does this, but skilled actors and a director – Daniel Sullivan – adept at pacing and placing.
Donald Margulies is an exceptional playwright, and every character in “The Country House” is fleshed out enough to become believable, whether or not we approve of their behavior. The play does wander, though, perhaps searching for a fixed point and a less dramatic drop in tone after intermission.
That’s not much of a blemish, however, and the show is engaging from start to finish. As a co-production with the Manhattan Theatre Club, it heads to Broadway in the fall. The cast may change, but the present ensemble is very good. And I think even Chekhov would agree.
Where: The Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: Through July 13. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.