First Nighter: Is Donald Margulies's 'Country House' Too Chekhovian or Not Chekhovian Enough?

Some plays about actors, acting and other theater concerns can be quite good--a worthy example being Anton Chekhov's 1895 work, The Seagull. Most plays about actors, acting and other theater concerns, however, are not so rewarding.

Sorry to say that one of them is Donald Margulies's newest comedy-drama, The Country House, now at the Samuel J. Friedman, following its world premiere at The Geffen Playhouse as part of a Manhattan Theatre Club-Geffen Playhouse co-production deal.

Curiously, one of the reasons the play falls short of Pulitzer Prize-winning Margulies's usual vaunted mark is that he's chosen, as many playwrights before him have, to make The Country House an homage to Chekhov. To be more specific, he's saluting--if you want to call it that--The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, and he goes seriously awry doing so, falling far short of Chekhov's dramaturgically and emotionally involving level.

In The Country House, actress of a certain age Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner) is in Williamstown, where she's had a home for some time, preparing to appear in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. Her granddaughter Susie Keegan (Sarah Steele), a Yale student on summer break, has opened the house, where her widowed director father Walter Keegan (David Rasche) is in residence with beautiful sometime actress and fiancée Nell McNally (Kate Jennings Grant).

Also on hand to ride the carousel of shifting character combinations making up the Chekhovian scenes about family distresses of all concealed and revealed kinds is Anna's son Elliot Cooper (Eric Lange), a failed actor and incipient playwright, who, it just happens, has many years previously shared a summer-stock stint with Nell where he fell in love with her and thought, wrongly, that his love was requited.

The final participant in the several-days action is Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), a television star crashing at Anna's place while he readies himself for a production of Ferenc Molnar's The Guardsman, which precedes Anna's hurtle at Shaw. Susie has idolized Michael since she was a child. That's when he was an up-and-comer playing Marchbanks to Anna's Candide in that Shaw item. Don't you know that Anna herself also had feelings for Michael she suppressed then but now is less suppressingly inclined?

Although the characters forge through a good deal during the two acts, torpor gathers quickly. Something stultifying creeps in that lends The Country House the feel of a middling sitcom. (Is that unfair to sitcoms?) It's a development about which director Daniel Sullivan can do little.

That Anna's attentions to Michael clash with his interest in Nell, that Susie's crush on Michael can come to nothing, that Elliot's sad existence and resentment of deceased sister Katie's husband Walter builds to physical conflict, that Anna and Elliot and Susie all catch Michael and Nell in an awkward moment, and that no one finds anything to say in favor of Elliot's first-ever play after they give it an in-house reading--none of it succeeds at engaging the audience very deeply.

Occasionally, Margulies connects with a line of dialogue, although actors referring to the theater as "this business" and asking "Might I have seen your work?" hardly takes the onus off how boring other people's shoptalk can so relentlessly be. He does offer a strong wisecrack about Broadway stars and stars on Broadway. It won't be quoted here in deference to its too truthful effect when Anna utters it.

What may happen for audience members who know their Chekhov is that as The Country House progresses, they'll be irresistibly tempted--as I was--to clock how closely Margulies in his two acts sticks to Chekhov's four acts, those four acts commonly done as two in contemporary productions.

(Readers boned up on the Russian master may want to skip the following two paragraphs for the several spoilers included. For different reasons, those not boned up may also want to forego them.)

From the moment Anna enters to ask Susie "How can you wear black in the summer?" which refers to Medvenko in The Seagull asking Masha "Why do you always wear black," the parallels begin proliferating. Anna is Arkadina, of course, as Michael is Trigorin, though his making a move on Nell is akin to Astrov falling for Yelena in Uncle Vanya.

When Elliot announces he's finished his play, any Chekhov knowledgeable will know it's bound to be every bit as bad as Konstantin's pretentious opus in The Seagull. But Elliot is not just Konstantin's stand-in. He's also Vanya in 2014. By the end of Margulies's update, Elliot is both characters in a plot turn that won't be revealed here. And on it goes through Chekhov's fourth act when Walter, Nell and Michael leave and Susie gets to echo Chekhov's departing folks by reporting, "They're all gone."

Maybe what Margulies has in mind with The Country House is to put it before audiences as a hearty game of How-Well-Do-You-Recognize-Your-Anton-C? If so, he's realized his intention.

As modern-day Chekhov counterparts, the six actors here acquit themselves well. To pay them and director Sullivan the best compliment under these circumstances is to say it would be a pleasure to see them tackling the real thing(s).

By the way, since Margulies's play has "house" in the title, the alert patron will expect the set to be quite an appealing representation of highly livable real estate that might be found in Wiiliamstown or vicinity. The savvy patron might even guess that John Lee Beatty, to whom many producers turn first for the house beautiful, will be the designer tapped here. He is and comes across with his usual lay-out of many niches and doors and windows--a living room full of things to look at when, as occurs too often, what's going on with Anna et al is less than riveting.

Rita Ryack's costumes for the way Williamstown habitués dress when rehearsing or keeping themselves fit by running are completely convincing. On the other hand, the ordinarily reliable Peter Kaczorowski has a little trouble with his lighting after a summer storm knocks out the country house electricity. The characters have to carry around candles and storm lamps. Too noticeably these aids either throw too much light or not enough.

Since for many years Danner was Williamstown's leading lady--and daughter Gwyneth Paltrow got her start there as well--theater cognoscenti may conclude that this vehicle is something of a drame a clé. Let's hope not. Let's just hope it's simply meant as a tribute to her, too. From everything known about Danner, she's hardly the actress-y actress Anna is. She's only playing one on stage.