Theater Review: The Country House Needs a Total Renovation

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Photo: Joan Marcus

Nikos Psacharopoulos, the longtime head of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, enjoyed the opportunities frequently afforded him to brutalize students and staff. Moron! he would bark. Get off the stage! He excused these outbreaks of viciousness against defenseless individuals by suggesting they were necessary to protect the health of the herd; he wanted to rid the theater of people unfit to be in it. But no one can always be great, and he ended up ridding the theater of many more people than needed to go. It’s a cautionary tale, one brought to mind by The Country House, a new comedy by Donald Margulies that’s not only set in Williamstown among Festival royalty but stars its sometime queen Blythe Danner. So let me just say that although Margulies has written wonderful plays — the revival of Dinner With Friends was one of last season’s highlights — The Country House isn’t among them.

Danner plays Anna Patterson, a character much like herself: a 70-ish actress, prone to Chekhov, with a famous actress daughter, except the one in the play is dead. For the first time post-burial, Anna has gathered the family at her Williamstown house, where she’s also trying to learn her lines for Mrs. Warren’s Profession. There’s Elliot, her 44-year-old son, a failed actor and hopeful playwright; Walter, her lately bereaved son-in-law, a stage director who went Hollywood and made a fortune on films like Truck Stop 3; and Susie, her granddaughter, who wears black in summer not only because she is in mourning, and goes to Yale, but because she is, in part, a reference to Masha in The Seagull. Alas, the play, too, is prone to Chekhov. Like way too many others recently, it hopes to borrow some of the master’s mojo by tossing his characters and themes into a juicer and seeing what emerges. Mostly what emerges is a lumpy, sour mess.

As in Uncle Vanya, the action begins with the arrival of unexpected (and yet predictable) guests: the movie director’s much younger girlfriend, who’s also in the business, and a TV star returning to Williamstown because that’s where “all ambivalent successful actors come for absolution.” You can fill in the blanks from there: The hopeful playwright’s terrible play (called The Descent of Man) will be read, the movie director will be attacked for selling out, and all the women will try to bed the TV star. In the course of this, Chekhov’s famous dictum about guns will be revised: If there’s a loaded character in the first act (the playwright drinks to anesthetize his pain) he will have to go off by the third. He does; a minimally violent climax is thus ginned up. But no sense of psychological danger ever emerges because not one of the characters is credible. Everything they say is wretchedly contrived, apparently determined by the playwright’s needs, not their own. 

What went wrong? Manhattan Theater Club, which did such a fine job on Margulies’s Time Stands Still four years ago, has applied its usual polish, with Daniel Sullivan again directing. Yet the tone wobbles like one of those air socks at a car dealership: now inflated, now bent, mostly becalmed and flaccid. Perhaps the problem is that the play was purpose-built, commissioned by MTC, and too closely tailored to the interests, if not the real talents, of its star. Neither Danner nor the rest of the well-cast cast (Daniel Sunjata as the action star and Sarah Steele as the Yalie at least look spot-on) are able to get out ahead of their characters, to apply that spin that can make theater people, with their ludicrous vanities and bitter envy, enjoyable to watch. As a result, Anna and the others all just seem vain and entitled, which may have been accurate up in the Berkshires in Psacharopoulos’s day but was never much worth watching.

Anyway, Williamstown is nicer now. (Psacharopoulos died in 1989.) So for that matter is theater criticism. We no longer suggest that playwrights consider “a flight to Three Mile Island on a one-way ticket,” which is what Robert Brustein thought Tennessee Williams should do after writing Clothes for a Summer Hotel. That said, The Country House makes me wish I’d seen Clothes for a Summer Hotel instead. Or any Chekhov play. Or even The Descent of Man.

The Country House is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through December 9.