I love to walk into a play and not know what to expect. That's what I got going into the Manhattan Theater Club's latest commission of a play that was worked out in LA before coming to Broadway. The moment the curtain rises and we see a beautiful home in the country for one to escape the noise of a big city, we are transported. If you see many plays, you may also know that once you see people arriving for a weekend, things are bound to go terribly wrong.
In Pulitizer Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies' play The Country House, a theatrical family has come together on the anniversary of the death of a 41 year old woman - a woman that connects everyone in the house. The matriarch (played brilliantly by Blythe Danner) is a star of stage and film and has decided to return to work after a year off from grieving the death of her child. (She has a great line about there being no more Broadway stars - only film star that now do stage.) Her granddaughter visits from college, a depressed uncle is asleep in his room, the widower arrives with a new girlfriend, and mom has invited a hunky TV star to spend time with them to round out this crazy weekend.
The play is full of laughs - what many will consider inside theatrical jokes - and moments of poignancy as well. You may attend the show realizing that the author is paying homage to Anton Chekhov in the structure and themes of the plays, but it's not a prerequisite. Actually, I felt doing this hindered the play to actually move and go somewhere. Too many moments are spent making fun of theater (remind audiences we are sitting in the theater watching...theater) and less time spent unraveling the layers in these interesting people's lives. (I might add that last season's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike played Chekhov homage masterfully while still feeling fresh.)
All the actors are wonderful on the stage and doing all they can with the characters they have. I must give the most kudos to Eric Lange who brings so much pathos to a rather unlikable son. Who am I to tell a Pulitizer Prize winner how to tell his story, but boy I wish the story had been constructed differently. The beauty of a 'drawing room' drama (or in this case, dramedy as it's also comedic) is dealing with what is going on underneath what all is being said. But while we get hints of it in this play, it never quite gets there for them to unravel. (And some things that are brought up are not really addressed in Act II.) Unfortunately, it doesn't feel as if the stakes are high enough for this self-centered bunch of performers in this family. The largest stake happened a year prior when Kathy died. And then it takes forever to get to the punch of the ending of the play where (for me) it really started to take shape. The relationship between mother and son and how the death of Kathy affected them all is the story I thought we were going to see. Too bad for the audience that Margulies wants to stick too closely to Chekhov instead of giving us a unique take on age old problems of sense of belonging, family competition, success and failure.