Sort-of Fun and Empty Times at The Country House

I always have been fond of Donald Margulies writing. In fact, a significant portion of his writing has that ever-elusive Sondheim-ian quality. Much in the way the latter musicalizes (a highly technical theatre term) the most internalized of emotions - or, y’know, emotions that you didn’t even know existed - Margulies can tap into a euphoria and provocation using just words and dialogue arising from the most simplistic of everyday situations. It astounds me how much Dinner with Friends is both hilarious and heartbreaking, yet it is nothing more then one couple getting a (relatively) mundane divorce and the other couple reflecting on their own relationship as they pay witness to it.

Unfortunately, The Country House - Margulies newest offering now open at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre - is just…nice. In select parts. Kind of.

Like, if this was Margulies first outing, I would remark, “fine, there is potential there.” But something about The Country House reads a little student-ey and that is a quality I have NEVER related to his work. The set-up is an homage to Anton Chekov’s The Seagull and Uncle Vanya - family and friends of an actress a year-passed all gather at their country house during summer stock at Williamstown - but the writing didn’t feel like Margulies at all. For all of the (alleged) anguish these characters are feeling (or we’re told that they are feeling), the play drifts forward and is just…there (less the last 20 minutes, which looked like an insertion from a different play).

By the way, can we declare a moratorium on the Chekov-inspired pieces for a little while? Between last fall's The Snow Geese and the critically-panned Days and Nights (Christian Camargo’s film inspired by The Seagull with quite the big-name ensemble), not everyone can just up and write the next Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It seems like Broadway churns out one of these productions every year, but the batting average is remarkably low considering every - and I do mean ‘every' - playwright has a Chekov-riff inside of him/her.

The Country House is at its most enjoyable when the incongruous plot is put aside and Margulies has some fun with timely jokes (gluten allergies, thigh-gap), meta-commentary (a second-act monologue about the theatre-community is a stunner) and all three women in the cast, each of a different age bracket, wanting to be flirtatious with a tight shirt-wearing Daniel Sunjata (in which exactly zero people can blame them or their loins). The cast as a whole - Sunjata, Kate Jennings Grant, Eric Lange, David Rasche, Sarah Steele and the lovely Blythe Danner - enliven up the proceedings enough to make the entire affair more pleasing.

In fact, it is quite a shame that Danner isn’t given more to do - she typically makes anything she stars in better just by existing in it. The more I think about it, she would make a perfect Ruth Steiner in Collected Stories. Someone should get a production of that staged somewhere, preferably New York, because I’d cut a bitch for a premium seat. This cast has talent to burn in a Margulies gem (anyone ready for a Sight Unseen or a Time Stands Still revival?) that it is unfortunate they are all performing this “rainy day” of a play.

Ticket Provided By the Production

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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