After seeing it, I wondered if The Country House were the redoubtable Donald Margulies’ contemporary spin on the Kaufman-Ferber acting-dynasty play The Royal Family. For where where that one, largely a comedy, looks at a dysfunctional but largely supportive and strong family through the prism of the era’s theatrical types and tropes, Margulies’, though a bit less of a full on comedy (though it has more than its share of well-earned laughs), seems to posit how those kinds of characters and ideas would seem as viewed through a new millennium prism. I did some quick research-Googling, and sure enough, The Royal Family was indeed an inspiration for him, as well as Chekhov’s The Seagull. And that would partially account for the country setting. I think another reason for that is contemporary reality: these days an acting dynasty can’t survive on Broadway alone, and you go where the work is. So the house of the title is located in Westport, Connecticut.
At the hub of the play is a missing character, Kathy Patterson, the second generation actress who, about a year ago, died. In the wake of grief and moving on are Kathy’s mother and dynasty matriarch Anna (Blythe Danner); her near-college-graduate granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele) who has no desire to follow in theatrical footsteps after years of watching the eccentricity and uncertainty it fosters; her father, Anna’s widowed son-in-law Walter Keegan (David Rasche), formerly a renowned director of theatrical trailblazers, now a franchise film director and happy to be selling out; his new (and too-soon?) fiancé Nell, also an actress (Kate Jennings Grant); a genuine TV leading man star, Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), “getting back to his roots” with a Summer production, and a houseguest at the behest of Anna, who was many years ago his onstage leading lady; and poor, ineffectual Ellot (Eric Lange): never able to live up to the family legacy, bereft at the loss of his sister, agonized that Walter’s fiancé is the one woman who was the great unrequited love of his life…and quietly crippled by a lifetime of casual marginalization via his mother.
I had a very pleasant time watching the play, and I can’t tell you I wasn’t suitably entertained: certainly it’s extremely well-acted by that ensemble and expertly, unobtrusively directed by Daniel Sullivan. And I don’t think Mr. Margulies is capable of writing badly, nor of presenting characters who aren’t well and clearly drawn. But I only occasionally “got with it.” And I think the reason why may hearken to something my matinee companion said at the intermission (which is placed after the second act of a three act structure): “I think they’re all talking too much.”
I’d put it another way: Throughout, I was aware of the effort. Having a notion that Mr. Margulies had consciously decided to pay homage to a particular kind of comedy-drama, I found myself clocking the tropes and variations, making comparisons to where I might have seen one before, where another was an ironic departure, etc. etc. The architecture of the play was almost as visible to me as the architecture of the set, and thus, despite a certain authenticity of insider language and observation, I couldn’t experience more than fleeting moments in which I was inside a world rather than outside a creation.
But it can be the difference that makes all the difference at times.
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