By Donald Margulies; Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Broadway, New Play
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
by Weston Clay on 10.2.14
Sarah Steele (left), Eric Lange, and Blythe Danner in The Country House. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A drama about a family of actors that lacks the authenticity necessary to pluck heart strings.
In one of The Country House’s best moments, Blythe Danner glibly says, “there are no more Broadway stars, there are stars on Broadway.” The audience roared, not blind to the fact that Danner is, essentially, speaking of herself. Danner--a veteran of Broadway known more recently for being the mother of Gwyneth Paltrow and for her role in the Meet the Parents films--is of a generation that proved that one could no longer make a legendary acting career without leaving the stage; this appearance on Broadway comes at a time when celebrity appearances drive many of the biggest hits.
It is these state-of-show-business conversations that make up The Country House’s most authentic moments and they always seemed to get a rise out of the theatre-industry heavy crowd at the preview performance I attended. It is unlikely, however, that this will resonate as strongly with less theatre-savvy audiences. That being the case, The Country House is probably only worth the hefty Broadway ticket price to a non-theatre person if you’re keeping a checklist of famous actors you’ve seen in person and the box next to Blythe Danner remains empty. Overall, the show lacks the authenticity and relatability it needs to propel the rather dramatic story to be deeply moving.
Danner plays Anna Patterson, an aging actress who has enjoyed a successful career, but whose happiness has been seriously compromised by the death of her equally successful actress daughter, who succumbed to cancer one year prior in the very Connecticut vacation house where the family is now gathering. Also in attendance is her granddaughter (and dead daughter’s daughter) Susie (Sarah Steele in her Broadway debut), Susie’s father Walter (David Rasche), his new fiancé Nell (Kate Jennings Grand), and Anna’s son Elliot (Eric Lange, known for television roles in Weeds and Lost), whose failed acting career and slobby appearance make him the outcast, and often embarrassment, of the family. Sleeping on the couch is Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), a famous film star who is making a stage appearance at a nearby theatre festival and who Anna invites in when his hotel room isn’t up to his standards.
Part of the problem with The Country House is that, aside from the fact that the family is recovering from an undoubtedly sad event, their privileged existence is always at the forefront. Forget “first world problems” which, embarrassing as they often are, we can all relate to. What we have here are “upper class first world problems,” and I think The Country House won’t prove relatable to enough people to garner the kind of audience a Broadway show needs to succeed.
Take Elliott, for example. His life has been plagued with failed auditions and the inability to make it in the industry that his mother and sister have flourished in. Though it’s a little sad to see his sense of self-worth suffer, his dramatic cries for help ring more as the macabre peacocking of a grown-up spoiled kid who can’t figure out what to do with his time, rather than a genuinely alarming life crisis. Sure, Elliot is sad, but most of us know a lot of people who have much more urgent problems than he does.
Furthermore, as the family navigates their fiery dynamics, mostly centering on Walter’s choice to bring his new fiancé to his recently deceased wife’s family home, much of what happens just isn’t that believable. There are unlikely and unexplained coincidences, obvious and predictable twists, characters who seem obviously miscast, and dialogue that often sounds unnatural. The cast (of mostly good actors) just can’t seem to bring the script to life. (Neither can the design team, led by the always great scenic designer John Lee Beatty.)
But the oddest thing is that the recurring conversations about they way theatre works today suggest that playwright (and Pulitzer prize-winner) Donald Margulies should know better. In the end though, the only legitimate reason I can offer to see The Country House is Blythe Danner. Although in this case, she isn’t so much shining as a Broadway star, as she is appearing as “a star on Broadway.”
(The Country House plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through November 23, 2014. Performances are Sundays at 2PM, Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, and Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM. Tickets are $67-$125 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. More show info at thecountryhousebway.com.)