Chekovian Tribute in “The Country House”
At the Theatre with Audrey Linden
Tony nominated playwright, Donald Marguiles’ play, “The Country House,” pays homage to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekov, and had its World Premiere opening at The Geffen Playhouse Wednesday. It is a co-production with the ManhattanTheatre Club and will go to Broadway next.
If you haven’t read the works of Chekov, or like me, only have a vague recollection of “Uncle Vanya” or the “Seagull”, it won’t diminish your pleasure for this play, which centers on a theatrical family, gathered together to remember the passing of Kathy. She was the wife to Walter, (David Rasche), the daughter to matriarch, Anna, (so well-cast and played by Blythe Danner), the sister to Elliott, (Eric Lange,) and the mother to Susie (Sarah Steele). All bring their bags and “baggage” to this peaceful, lovely country home in the Berkshires. The comfy, autumnal home is such a juxtaposition to the pent-up feelings that will surface and explode in a dynamic Act 2.
Director Daniel Sullivan moves the play along at a fast clip. The play is billed as a comedy, and Act 1 certainly is a comedy and sparkles with brilliant dialogue and laughter. But, Act 2 definitely is a drama. I prefer to call this play a “dramedy”, so audiences will know what they are in for. You are in for a delightful and introspective view of a dysfunctional theatrical family.
The set by John Lee Beatty is a very comfortable two-story country home in the Berkshires. The muted warm mustard and pumpkin tones with a large, welcoming striped sofa, cushy chairs, over stuffed pillows, Tiffany lamp, art work on the walls, gives the actors an open space to work in. There are large windows, French doors, leading to a garden, a staircase, all of which project openness and a relaxed comfort. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Jon Gottlieb’s sound effects work perfectly to give us rain, thunder, and lightening. The weather also nicely signals the transition from Act 1 into a turbulent Act 2 as we go from blue skies and sunshine into a storm that builds.
Anna Patterson, “uber” stage actress (Blythe Danner) is at the center of the storm. Blythe Danner got applause the moment she set foot on stage, and she brought the matriarch, drama-queen to life with sheer perfection. Danner has that regal show biz demeanor and of course, her wonderful unmistakable raspy voice. Her son-in-law, Hollywood producer, Walter, who is in his sixties, has brought his mid-life crisis Porsche and young girlfriend, Nell (Emily Swallow) to the gathering to remember his departed wife, Kathy. Walter produces schlock. He is “pandering to the puerile interests of fifteen year old boys” with his successful “Truck Stop” films. But, hey, he had enough of the theatre and poverty. “I’m tired of starving; it’s not a virtue”. Daughter Susie says, “Dad’s Porsche cries out male menopause.” Then, we have Elliot, (Eric Lange), Anna's son, Uncle to Susie, and brother to Kathy, who “has squandered his life with vitriol.”
Elliot is a bitter down and out-of-work actor who purges himself by writing a play which hits too close to home with all, especially his mother. Then there is outsider Nell, an actress out of her ingenue prime, who auditioned for Walter and got the part and the producer. Does she love Walter? Perhaps? Granddaughter, Susie, is the great leveler. She wants no part of show business and is on a break from college. She seems to have more maturity that the adults, and may be the glue that holds the immediate family together. Steele is so natural in her character; she is a joy to watch.
There is one more non-family member in television star, heart-throb, Michael Astor whom Anna ran into at the market. His house was being fumigated, so Anna invited him to stay a few days. Scott Foley, who plays Michael also is a T V star and has been the heart-throb on “Gray’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”. This is perfect casting. Anna and Michael were in a play years ago, and she was smitten and never quite forgot him. And, Michael is no stranger to the family.
Hidden twists, conflicts, and ulterior motives surface. Elliot was in a play with Nell eleven years ago in Louisville, and he has carried the torch all that time. It is serendipitous when she shows up on the arm of his brother-in-law, Walter? Pragmatic Susie is smitten with the handsome celebrity star, Michael. Michael also has an agenda as he tries to seduce the about-to-be-married Nell. That was such a lovely scene with such rich subtext between the two of them, seemingly about a glass of water. Anna asks how can Michael come to the home of one woman and not seduce her, but try to seduce another under the same roof. Poor taste. Forget that Anna tried to seduce Michael at the gathering to honor the memory of her daughter. The sub text and ulterior motives all made for very interesting dynamics.
Marguiles has a knack for dialogue, and I loved the zingers. But, structurally, the transition from comedy to drama was too abrupt. It was almost as if Act 1 and Act 2 were two separate plays. Act 2 was very heavy as Elliot staged a reading of his play. It was a catharsis for him, but an abomination to others. Anna saw it as “a childish attempt to get back at me.”
The bickering builds to a fast and shocking climax. It was like a marathon group therapy session. Is there hope for any of them to heal and find some meaningful relationship with each other? Once the truth comes out, will healing will take place? Will the truth be too much? Will the immediate family survive? You have to see Donald Marguiles, “The Gathering” and decide for yourselves. There are laughs, pungent dialogue, neurotic family dynamics, and superb acting from a fine ensemble cast well directed by Daniel Sullivan. If all falls apart, as Anna reminds us, there is always the “theatah”, my “deahs”.
“The Gathering” at the Geffen Playhouse at 10886 Le Conte Ave. runs through July 13th. Ticket prices are $37 to $77. Call 310-208-5454 or go online to www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Audrey Linden is a writer, actress and singer. She can be seen in a long-running “Associated Tax Resolution” commercial, two “Little Caesars” spots, a “Teva International Pharmaceutical” short, Gene Simmons’ “Family Jewels,” “America’s Court with Judge Ross,” VHS “Tough Love 2,” “Wendy’s” etc.
Audrey teaches ON CAMERA COMMERCIAL and IMPROV COMEDY WORKSHOPS through the City of Beverly Hills. To register, call 310-285-6850. Her classes are held at 241 Moreno Dr. B.H. 90212. Her classes are on-going in June through July and start again in September. For more information, contact Audrey at firstname.lastname@example.org