Donald Margulies' The Country House World Premieres at the Geffen
Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies really has a talent for nailing characterization and digging deep into relationships with positive results. A year after the death of an actress/daughter/wife/mother, her loss still deeply affects those who loved her. In what way do they experience the change? Do they grow from it and move forward or do they allow the tragedy to defeat their goals, ambitions, and their personal connection to one another? This is no ordinary family, but an acting clan, some of whom continue to thrive while others struggle for success. Such is the meat of Margulies' world premiere The Country House, currently onstage at the Geffen through July 13.
Even though Blythe Danner heads the cast as matriarch Anna Patterson, a great actress for all seasons and still a vital force of nature, The Country House is a true ensemble piece. The country house is a homestead on the East coast near Williamstown, Massachusetts where the clan of actors have worked on the stage for many years. Ironic, as Danner herself has acted in the Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival since The Seagull in the 70s and has been on the artistic board there for over 25 years. As Anna Patterson she is preparing to take the stage once more in Shaw's Mrs.Warren's Profession. Still grief-stricken over the loss of her daughter, she receives a visit from her son-in-law Walter (David Rasche), a successful Hollywood director and his new girlfriend Nell, also an actress (Emily Swallow), along with Walter's daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), a college student - and the only one of the clan who refuses to become a part of the family business. Living in the country house is Anna's son Elliot (Eric Lange), a booze and drug-addicted failure who suffers from a lack of parental love and guidance. Anna, still vibrant, unexpectedly but longingly brings home another actor, old friend Michael Astor (Scott Foley) who is preparing to do The Guardsman on the Williamstown stage. His rental is being fumigated, so Anna, when she meets him by chance at a store, sees this as an excuse to invite him to stay at her home for a couple of nights. Astor, a successful TV actor, handsome and charming to a fault, creates a stir with not only Anna, but with Susie, Elliot and even Nell with whom he finds an instant attraction. What transpires over the course of a few days forms the crux of the play, filled with rich theatrical stories, keen insight into surviving in today's frantic show business world - including stage versus film snobbery - and a thoroughly humorous and telling encounter with this extraordinarily gifted dysfunctional family and their friends.
Danner is forever luminous and incandescent. Just watching her react is a pleasure in itself. Anna is no divine mother. She is ingratiating, yet vain, self-centered and protective of her interests. Nevertheless, she does transform ever so slightly at play's end as she comes to the realization of her failure as a mother. Danner's subtlety and control guarantee her a place as one of our finest living actresses. Lange as Elliot is just brilliant. Also self-centered but in a completely negative way, Elliot's anger makes him a walking time-bomb, and Lange plays the moment to moment edgy transitions to the hilt. Also wonderfully sensitive and engaging is Steele as Susie. Her compassion wins our hearts. Foley has a difficult role as Astor. In one way he is slick and superficial and yet lurking beneath the surface is a man of great passion, who truly wants to give back to the world. In spite of this, his motives are often viewed as selfish and his attempt at the stage, an absolution for his big-monied success. Foley does a fine job of keeping him seemingly honest and direct. Rasche is another excellent actor whose Walter is who he is. He makes no excuses for compromise, but moves along finding happiness in his choices. Another winning performance! Last but hardly least is Swallow as Nell, another difficult role to play, as she is the outsider, easily viewed as an opportunist. Swallow brings warmth, sincerity and likability to the fore. Under director Daniel Sullivan's meticulous guidance, the entire ensemble give wonderful performances, but it is first and foremost Margulies' superb writing with its crackling dialogue and fiery exchanges that allows all of this to transpire.
John Lee Beatty has designed a beautiful set of the country house whose lived-in East coast flavor exudes an unparalleled class and warmth.
Don't miss The Country House. It is a dramedy full of rich complexities that will simultaneously move and entertain you.