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The Country

Martin Crimp has defined his play "The Country" as the story of a "dead marriage," and this, it turns out, is an accurate summation of the story. Problem is, the marriage has reached such a sterile point-of-no-return that we have no hope for its resurrection and little emotional stake in what the characters ultimately decide to do.

Martin Crimp has defined his play “The Country” as the story of a “dead marriage,” and this, it turns out, is an accurate summation of the story. Problem is, the marriage has reached such a sterile point-of-no-return that we have no hope for its resurrection and little emotional stake in what the characters ultimately decide to do. Watching two alienated principals peck and parry has a brittle fascination, but their clashes simmer without exploding. All the tortured talk moves in a straight line, rarely springing surprise twists or revelations.

It’s known immediately that Richard (Gary Cole), an English doctor, and his wife, Corinne (Catherine Dent), are estranged when we meet them — director Lisa Peterson has seated them on either side of what must surely be the world’s longest table. Richard, after finding a strange woman, Rebecca (Emily Bergl), lying on the road, has just brought her to his home. This seemingly sympathetic action doesn’t ring true to suspicious Corinne, nor are her nagging doubts allayed by Richard’s line, “I don’t want to kiss you … I already kissed you.”

It turns out Richard’s kisses have indeed gone elsewhere. Further details about his prior affair with the supposed stranger, lingering drug dependency and fatal neglect of an elderly patient furnish a well-plotted blueprint for valid drama, without eliciting more than mild curiosity. Characters also disappear or return arbitrarily, and the final removal of Rebecca feels contrived.

The three performers impaled on Crimp’s triangle are individually competent, yet they seem unrelated to each other. As manipulative Richard, Cole succeeds in creating a cryptic figure, but the edgy, repetitive dialogue doesn’t sit easily on his tongue. When Corinne needles him about losing his “famous sense of humor,” her statement is bewildering, since Cole doesn’t display the least bit of wit or humor.

There’s no searing sexuality in Richard’s passion for Rebecca. This is understandable, since she’s either viperous or pseudo-poetic, and her nastiness doesn’t translate into raw sensuality. A scene with Edward Albee potential, pitting wife against mistress, comes closest to stirring up excitement, but Corinne is far more interesting and attractive and Rebecca pales by comparison.

Although it’s never clear why Corinne initially loved Richard or what elements made this marriage work before it disintegrated, Dent’s portrayal of a desperate woman suppressing hysteria has nerve-wracking reality. Crimp and director Peterson effectively create an atmosphere where Corinne subtly stalks and circles around her guilty husband like a lurking lioness. She’s not a convincing mother, despite the announced offstage presence of two children, or a defined personality in her own right beyond determination to salvage her marriage, but when she says, “I suddenly feel lost,” the mood breaks from erudite banter into believable pathos.

Rachel Hauck’s bare, spacious set suggests lack of communication, even though the enormous wooden spiral staircase is so overwhelming that you half expect Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to come dancing down. Equally mystifying is Christopher Akerlind’s golden lighting in the last scene, which implies a second chance, as Corinne cuts off Richard’s overtures and condemns their marriage to its former, civilized hell.

The Country

La Jolla Playhouse; 416 seats; $49 top

  • Production: A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a play in one act by Martin Crimp. Directed by Lisa Peterson.
  • Crew: Sets, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Joyce Kim Lee; lights, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Mark Bennett; stage manager, Lori J. Weaver. Opened, reviewed Aug. 3, 2003; runs through Aug. 31. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
  • Cast: Richard - Gary Cole Corinne - Catherine Dent Rebecca - Emily Bergl