After two decades in which he was minimally represented on Broadway, Clifford Odets resurfaced two seasons ago with a superlative revival of his poetic 1935 debut “Awake and Sing!” and now with Mike Nichols’ staging of “The Country Girl,” written 15 years later. The two plays are worlds apart: The politics, richly populated ensemble and pinpoint sociology of the early work gave way to a more sentimental vehicle for three stars in the popular backstage melodrama. But even if the 1950 play is a lesser achievement, the dramatist’s singing idiomatic speech and his affecting insights into the erosion of the human spirit still make for enthralling theater.
There may be no comparison in thematic reach between the two plays, but “The Country Girl” remains surprisingly durable thanks in part to its flavorful evocation of the theater milieu, but chiefly to its trio of meaty lead roles, all colored by compelling ambiguities and craggy edges. And in Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher, Nichols finds three intelligent collaborators capable of investing those characters with their own distinctive shadings.
Contrary to the title, the play’s center is Frank Elgin (Freeman), a once-formidable actor whose gifts have been squandered in alcoholism and self-pity. He gets the opportunity for artistic redemption when hotshot young director Bernie Dodd (Gallagher), who remembers Frank’s glorious past, takes a chance on him in the lead role of a Broadway-bound play trying out in Boston. With self-destructive cunning, the high-maintenance actor tirelessly seeks ways to ensure his own failure, as his wife Georgie (McDormand) and Bernie clash in their struggle to keep him on track.
While the play’s psychology belongs to an era before addictive personalities and parasitic relationships were regularly placed under an unforgiving dramatic microscope, its depiction of co-dependency retains veracity and complexity. Beneath their frayed bonds, the hurt of Frank’s deceit and Georgie’s brittleness, and his shameless manipulation in setting her up to take the rap for his own weakness, the warmth between them is never in question.
Whether consciously or not, all three characters present carefully constructed personas to the world.
Frank’s genial, easygoing air masks his passive-aggressive insecurity and inescapable despair, his loss of faith in his will battling a prideful belief in his talent. By contrast, Bernie’s self-confidence seems unshakable, yet his vaunted, bitter experience with a drunken father and a difficult ex-wife has given him a surprisingly dim understanding of both alcoholics and women. Georgie’s appearance of embittered self-abnegation hides a well of long-suffering loyalty.
Nichols and the actors respect the exacting rhythms of Odets’ writing, constructing these conflicted characterizations nuance by nuance, and frequently risking unsympathetic bluntness before whipping away veils to show a larger, more humanistic picture. In a production for which the negative word about detached direction and tentative performances has been emanating loudly through previews, it may be that the gradual coalescence of character evident in the writing was echoed in the staging process.
Gallagher’s crackling performance is the most immediately captivating, full of in-period detail and brash physicality, with an expert balance of suspicious animosity and growing sexual tension in his contest with Georgie.
Freeman plays both with and against his innate strength, composure and dignity. His towering presence is reined in at first, as Frank appears bruised and intimidated when called upon to audition. But his transformation while unleashing his improvisational skills with Bernie is bracing, instantly standing taller as he validates the director’s hunch about his ability to bring something vital and unpredictable to the role. Freeman then swings like a pendulum between authority and pathetic frailty in a magnetic turn that never soft-pedals the character’s dishonesty.
Georgie is the most complicated character, and while McDormand initially seems mannered and distancing, there’s a thoughtfulness evident in her performance that lends increasing poignancy to her sacrifice. While the unconventional casting of an African-American actor as Frank goes without comment, McDormand’s natural toughness adds credibility to her steadfastness in a mixed marriage in the 1950s.
As the title suggests, Georgie dismisses herself as a simple country girl, lacking in the sophistication of the theater world. “I haven’t felt like a woman in 10 years,” she says matter-of-factly. But much as she behaves like someone prematurely aged, rendered abrasive by wary defensiveness, she’s unable to suffocate the smart, stylish, cultured woman that lies just beneath the scrappy surface. When Georgie ponders the possibility of another life either alone or with someone like Bernie, McDormand is quietly moving, allowing a new softness to emerge as she regards freshly confident Frank: “You’re handsome tonight.”
Yet right up to the beautifully composed final image of Georgie alone during opening night in New York, there’s a lovely, melancholy note in her awareness that her choice means a future of continuing uncertainty. (Jon Robin Baitz has made minor revisions to the text, including removal of a half-baked exit strategy for Georgie in the final scene; elsewhere, changes are mainly limited to substitution of occasional obsolete terms like “courtesan” with “hooker.”)
While this is very much a three-character piece, Remy Auberjonois as the principled playwright and Chip Zien as the nervous, irascible producer make sharp impressions, sharing a firm handle on Odets’ colorful vernacular with the leads.
Punctuating the scene changes with slow curtains that underscore the drama’s inhabitation of a theatrical world, Tim Hatley’s sets are both detailed and unfussy, from the gloomy brick walls of an undressed New York stage to the yellowed, peeling wallpaper of a shabby apartment or the transient residence of a dressing room, all choked with cigarette smoke. Albert Wolsky’s costumes could stand some naturalistic rumples but do the job nonetheless, as does Natasha Katz’s unadorned lighting.
However, it’s the performances and not the production that are key to elevating “The Country Girl” above its essence of quality soap, and on that count, Nichols and his cast deliver.