The sight of a country house on stage is enough to raise the pulse of most experienced theatergoers. The casual décor and bucolic views may suggest a cozy reprieve from the bustle of city life, but anyone who has spent time in a sleepy backwater with Anton Chekhov, Noël Coward, Terrence McNally or, more recently, Christopher Durang will know that once the guests have settled in, the calm is sure to be blown to smithereens.
John Lee Beatty’s set for Donald Margulies’ new play, “The Country House,” which is having its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in a Broadway-bound co-production with Manhattan Theatre Club directed by Daniel Sullivan, is deliciously inviting, with its rustic ambience urging you to leave your routine cares behind.
Yet as soon as Blythe Danner, in the role of Broadway actress Anna Patterson, waltzes into her home with the news that an old friend — a handsome TV star, as it happens — will be staying for a few nights with members of her family who have gathered to commemorate the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death, the stage is set for all theatrical hell to break loose.
Margulies, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends,” “Sight Unseen” and a host of other resonant American dramas, has finally gotten around to writing his Chekhov play. “The Country House” is an explicit homage to the Russian master, a work that braids character types and situations from both “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya.”
If it can’t compete with these dramatic masterpieces, well, nothing written in the last 100 years can. Chekhov’s supple artistry — at once invisible and palpably present — is so inextricably tied to his fearless yet humane worldview that copying his example would be as impossible as counterfeiting fingerprints.
There’s a good deal of fun in the attempt, however, especially in the first half when the play is in flamboyant comic mode. (The move to more serious psychological drama late in the second half comes off as ponderous.) Chekhov’s characters are adept at laughing through tears. Margulies’ are most memorable when cracking wise about the theater.
Yes, Anna’s nearest and dearest have followed her into show business. Her daughter, Kathy, who died at 41 from cancer, was an actress. Walter (David Rasche), her son-in-law, is a filmmaker who has made a fortune on a movie franchise aimed at adolescent boys. And Elliot (Eric Lange), Anna’s stymied middle-aged son, is an out-of-work actor who has recently tried his hand at playwriting. (His play is about a man who kills his mother, burns down the family homestead and takes his own life.)
Only Susie (Sarah Steele), Kathy and Walter’s daughter who has come up from Yale, has resisted the thespian calling. She has a jaundiced view of the profession and an allergy to histrionic displays.
If Susie’s cynicism is particularly inflamed, it’s because she’s furious that her father has showed up with his “male menopause” Porsche and his new actress girlfriend, Nell (Emily Swallow), whose beauty has captivated both Elliot, who acted with Nell years ago in Louisville and has been in love ever since, and Michael (Scott Foley), the visiting TV celebrity who has come to Williamstown this summer to do a classic play and cleanse himself of his Hollywood sins.
One source of amusement with “The Country House” is matching the characters with their Chekhovian antecedents.
Anna bears a striking resemblance to Arkadina, the vain actress mother in “The Seagull,” while Elliot is like a cross between Konstantin, Arkadina’s struggling playwright son, and the terminally frustrated Uncle Vanya. Walter’s age and obtuseness suggest the Professor from “Uncle Vanya,” who also returns with a much younger woman, with whom lovely Nell shares many traits. And Susie slowly transforms into a dead ringer for Sonya, Vanya’s stalwart, unlucky-in-love niece.
Will Margulies’ play be as satisfying to those not attuned to what he’s trying to pull off? To be honest, the Chekhovian parallels are a bit distracting and not just for those who know the originals but also for the playwright himself, who leans a bit too heavily on Chekhov to give his meandering plot shape and order.
Chekhov’s plays can feel desultory, but there’s not a moment in any of his masterpieces in which his thematic vision isn’t deepening. “The Country House,” by contrast, still seems to be searching for its own independent meaning. This is an ensemble piece about characters in various phases of grieving, but the drama often seems to be imposed artificially through Chekhovian infusions, and the focus on the Oedipal source of Elliot’s psychological wounds at the end doesn’t feel completely organic.
Fortunately, the sparkling quality of the dialogue — at its vintage best when commenting on contemporary celebrity, the changing conditions of the theater and the compromises entailed by a life in showbiz — provides a good deal of compensation.
When Elliot explains to Michael that he worked with Nell at the Humana Festival 11 years ago, he asks, “You ever been to Louisville in February? We were like sole survivors of a nuclear winter” — a joke that will probably be more humorous to theater professionals who have made the pilgrimage.
The high quality of Sullivan’s cast is another pleasure. There was some unsteadiness with lines at Wednesday’s reviewed performance, but the characters were richly inhabited. And in keeping with mature Chekhov, there were no true villains, only degrees of blindness, vanity and selfishness.
Danner is a delight, even if her character becomes less agreeable as she reveals more of her brittle, egomaniacal side. Lange is a whining modern-day Vanya to the marrow. Swallow and Rasche elude simplistic pigeonholes. Foley’s Michael is a good-guy charmer with a vague dark streak adding complexity. And Steele’s Susie possesses a civilian common sense that throws cold water on drama queens of both sexes.
“The Country House” could use some structural renovation, but you won’t regret paying it a visit.