When You Don’t Have a Real Life, You Make Do with Dreams

While the Pearl Theater revives Uncle Vanya, Donald Margulies is rewriting it with The Country House, a drama that takes Chekhov’s interest in aging and disappointment and transplants it to the lives of people in show business.  As she prepares to star in George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the matriarch and aging actress Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner) collects her family together in Williamstown, Massachusetts to mourn the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death.  Her former son-in-law, the director Walter Keegan (David Rasche), shows up with his new fiancée, the stunning but failed actress Nell McNally (Kate Jennings Grant), who coincidentally happens to be a long-ago fling of Anna’s son, Elliott (Eric Lange), an actor who has given up auditioning and picked up playwriting.  Nell’s presence infuriates Walter’s college-aged daughter, Susie (Sarah Steele), but the greatest disruption is Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), a television star and family friend whose beauty hypnotizes all the women in the house and whose success fuels Elliott’s drunken bitterness.

Mr. Margulies is an expert at writing traditional well-made American plays.  His works may not be surprising—and they may be eternally stuck in the upper middle class—but they are always satisfying, with identifiable characters and situations and sharp dialogue.  “There are no Broadway stars, dear,” Anna tells Nell in a line that proved quite the crowd-pleaser. “Oh, there are stars on Broadway, but they’re not Broadway stars.”  Ms. Danner proves both the emotional and comic core of the cast, alternately steamrolling over the feelings of her family and coyly asking for sympathy for her own.  After catching Michael in an attempt to bed Nell, she informs him with matronly wisdom and only a trace of sexual disappointment, “When a woman invited you into her home and you don’t seduce her, don’t seduce another woman, darling.  It’s bad manners.”  Mr. Rasche is amiable as Walter, who has chosen to abandon “artistic” pursuits for mainstream filmmaking but who nonetheless remains more observant than he is given credit for.  Mr. Lange has the toughest job, playing the self-pitying Vanya role, and while he is best when he gets those delicious, self-depracting jokes, he also avoids indulging in histrionics of Elliott’s monologues about his mother’s love.  Ms. Steele is also appropriately understated—Elliott complains that he has always been the only nobody in the room, apparently forgetting about his niece—and only Ms. Grant is miscast, for the repeated references to Nell’s radiance (and this is rather awkward) don’t quite resonate with her looks.

Granted, The Country House becomes a little lopsided after intermission, when Elliott commandeers the play and the focus shifts from an entire family to one disgruntled member.  Still, Mr. Margulies, director Daniel Sullivan, and their cast are all first-rate professionals, and this is a solid if somewhat run-of-the-mill comic drama.

The Country House runs through November 23rd at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  254 W. 54th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 15 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

One thought on “When You Don’t Have a Real Life, You Make Do with Dreams

  1. Well, I agree with “run-of-the-mill” anyway, which is a synonym for “mediocre,” the word I used in my review.

    http://newyorktheater.me/2014/10/04/the-country-house-review-trivial-actor-stuff-starring-blythe-danner/

    “Had Margulies made these characters a family of doctors or even circus performers, he might well have been forced to avoid much of what’s banal and outright irritating about “The Country House.” It doesn’t help that yet another Broadway play about actors, wedged in between last season’s egregious “Bullets Over Broadway” and lumbering “Act One” and this season’s forthcoming revival of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only A Play,” is at least one play too many.”

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