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The Modern Day Checkh-Off, Part 2: "The Country House"

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"The Country House" at Geffen Playhouse

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Do Christopher Durang and Donald Margulies know each other? Do they assemble at… oh… wherever it is that east coast playwrights assemble, maybe at Yale where Durang earned a playwriting MFA and where Margulies currently is an adjunct professor of English and Theatre studies?

Is there, perhaps, a wager between Durang, the Roman Catholic parodist and Margulies the somewhat more seriously minded Jewish dramatist, over which man can craft a slicker contemporary version of “Uncle Vanya?” Are they engaged in a Chekh-off?

Granted Margulies’ newest play “The Country House” – in its world premiere at the Geffen en route to the Manhattan Theatre Club – is a different comedic beast than the broader, distinctly Durang-ian “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Both plays wave their Chekov flag with equal verve and pride of the borrower. Disaffectedness plays significantly in both plays as a Vanya-esque character contemplates the hopelessness of life, bleats out an un-disaffected “No! Enough!” and acts accordingly.

Featuring winning performances by Blythe Danner and Eric Lange, “The Country House” uses not only “Vanya,” but a couple more Chekhov plays and nearly out-Antons Anton with a sly mixture of humor and serious family angst. That the action takes place at the summer residence of a family of actors who have assembled in the Berkshires to prepare for roles in the Williamstown Theatre Festival makes the set-up all the more delicious. There are no cherry orchards on this summer estate, but amidst the Keegans, Coopers, Pattersons and guests, there are individuals who are most decidedly bananas. Margulies and frequent director Daniel Sullivan are every bit at the top of their game here.

Anna the matriarch (played by an ageless Danner) has dispatched her granddaughter Susan (Sarah Steele) to open the country house in anticipation of her arrival. Susan is up from – where else - Yale and is joined by her father Walter (David Rasche), a former legitimate director who now helms blockbuster schlock, along with Walter’s much younger fiancée, an actress named Nell (Emily Swallow).

Also visiting is Anna’s son Elliott Cooper (Lange), a washout actor turned playwright who knows Nell from – again where else? – a theater festival they worked together. Complicating things further is Anna’s invitation to Michael Astor (Scott Foley), a hotshot heartthrob actor in the George Clooney mode, to crash on her sofa while his hotel is being fumigated. We’re a year removed from the death by cancer of Susan’s mother (Anna’s daughter) Kathy, and everyone we meet knew Kathy and bears a scar from her untimely passing.

Over the course of about a week, wounds are opened, jealousies expressed, plays are read and declarations are made. It could just be that a family this accustomed to the limelight can’t help but act out grandly in the face of conflict and despair. They’re playing out a contemporized version of “Uncle Vanya” (with bits of “The Seagull” thrown in). Chief among the miserable is Vanya stand-in Elliot who is lashing out at Astor, Walter, his mother and life in no particular order.

Following the en masse reading (silently not aloud) of Elliot’s play, the family disperses. All but Walter who Elliot bullies into giving an honest response. “You have a gift for self-mortification. You practically insist that people hurt you,” Walter replies. “OK, I can do that.”

Great line, and Walter is dead-on. Elliot is a self-destructive, self-pitying, jealous loser who has lived in the shadow of his more successful family members. The man has basically stepped out of an early Woody Allen movie and into Chekhovia. Trouble is, he’s also family, and Lange gives him a malevolent passive-aggressive engine that keeps him from being purely annoying. And when Margulies brings us to the root of Elliot’s resentment, it’s a bit of a gut-punch. Predictable, but no less affecting.

Steele’s eye-rolling detachment at her family’s foibles – Susie’s the only non-artist in the menagerie – permits her to steal most of her early scenes. For you Chekhov score-keepers, she’s a hybrid of about three characters who pine unrequited. Margulies ups the ante a bit by having her pissed off at her dad and new stepmother.

It has been a long time since Blythe Danner (a regular of both Broadway and Williamstown) has been on a stage out west, but my heavens she is a craftsman. Anna is a diva, certainly, but she’s also a grieving mother who doesn’t really know how to play out anything real when she’s not on stage. Danner pulls back on grand dame theatricality and works some artful cougar chemistry with Foley’s Astor. As the dispirited actor looking for greater meaning, accepting or rejecting as opportunities come along, Foley shines as well.

John Lee Beatty has designed an elegant Berkshire abode with all sorts of nooks and design touches that signal the ownership of a theater-loving family. Sound and lighting directors Jon Gottlieb and Peter Kaczorowski round out the technical team, deftly handling a storm scene which includes a great act-closing lighting effect.

The more he writes, the trickier it gets to peg the eclectic Donald Margulies who has tackled the dynamics of coupledom (“Dinner with Friends”), the politics of art and its attendant costs (“Sight Unseen”), war-scarred journalists (“Time Stands Still”), friendship and artistic ownership (“Collected Stories”) and theatrical flim-flammery (“Shipwrecked! an Entertainment”). The man is most decidedly a friend to the Geffen and to the theater community at large. “The Country House” is a welcome return.

“The Country House” continues 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.; through July 13 at 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. $33-$77. $37 (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.com.

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