At this point, Cynthia Nixon could probably run a marathon in four-inch heels. The veteran stage actress has made a splash as one of the smart, sexy and cynical Gucci-stiletto gang in the hit HBO series “Sex and the City.” Now she’s stalking the stage in strappy spikes in Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Country Club ,” playing a smart, sexy and cynical divorcee who returns to her upper-crust Pennsylvania hometown to lick her wounds in the comforting haven that gives the play its title.
Beane, artistic director of the Drama Dept., supplied the Off Broadway troupe its biggest hit with his sharp, snappy 1997 comedy “As Bees in Honey Drown.” The company had a disappointing season last year, and it would be nice to report that Beane’s new(ish) play marked a return to form. Alas, “The Country Club” is a minor and rather glibly formulaic play, chronically infected with the same shallowness that it purports to condemn in its characters, a bunch of disillusioned young WASPs.
Nixon plays Soos (goofy nicknames are de rigueur here), who left Wyomissing, Pa., with every intention of throwing aside the cozy prejudices she’d grown up with. But back in the “cub room” of the local country club after a harrowing breakup in California, Soos falls in with the old gang, most of whom have gradually morphed into facsimiles of their complacent parents.
Her best pal Pooker (Amy Hohn) is the peacemaker who navigates the divide between the brittle edges of Soos and the rigid dictates of Froggy, the quintessential WASP matron-in-training, played with disarmingly loopy panache by Amy Sedaris. Meanwhile, Soos renews an old romance with Zip (Tom Everett Scott), in which nostalgia eventually gives way to a despairing ardor on her part. It’s left to the gang’s junior alcoholic, Hutch (Frederick Weller), to introduce an outsider who threatens to destroy the delicate equilibrium among this circle of friends, who are always treading around unacknowledged puddles of low-grade self-loathing.
The interloper is the Italian-American Chloe (Callie Thorne), whose June wedding to Hutch marks one of the dozen or so holiday gatherings into which the play’s scenes are somewhat schematically divided. In the play’s most casually savage moments, Pooker, Froggy and her husband reveal their ugly core of superciliousness as they express revulsion at the decorum of Chloe’s family (“She looks like Susan Lucci,” Froggy snipes of the bride). Soos and Zip come to Chloe’s defense, she out of sympathy with an outsider, he for more personal reasons — he’s secretly in love with Chloe.
It’s not surprising to learn that the playwright, in fact, grew up in Wyomissing. The play has the unmistakable aura of a writer looking back on his past with a comfortable feeling of mildly smug censoriousness. But while Beane’s revelations may strike a chord with those who’ve done time in cub rooms, it’s hardly news to the rest of us that rich white WASPs who hang in restricted country clubs can be snobbish, self-involved and soulless.
Beane doesn’t treat his characters with the kind of articulate compassion that would make them emotionally engaging, or enough comic savagery to make them entertaining (the exception is Sedaris’ brilliantly cartoonish Froggy, who seems to come from a different, and far more intriguing, play). Even the most sympathetic characters, Soos and Zip, spout jaded, smartly sculpted dialogue that eventually sets your teeth on edge. (And Beane seems still to be mildly inoculated with the attitudes he’s dissecting: The character of Chloe, free-spirited, outspoken and sexually alluring, just barely escapes stereotype.)
Performances under Christopher Ashley’s direction, which is sometimes more sensitive than the writing, are largely distinguished. In the lead role, Nixon nicely marries the character’s fragility and self-mocking intelligence. Hohn and Weller are fine in more thinly drawn roles, and Thorne makes a strong impression as Chloe. Only Scott is flat and lacking in emotional presence as Zip, whose passion for Chloe is no more believably conveyed than is Hutch’s.
James Youmans’ set is an elegant whitewashed room that nicely sets off the tastefully swank costumes by Jonathan Bixby and Gregory A. Gale. Indeed, the production is entirely lovely to look at, in the crisp manner of a Ralph Lauren ad. Sad to say, the play itself isn’t much more nuanced or lifelike — watching it is not unlike flipping through an issue of Vanity Fair, circa 1986.