Donald Margulies gets a big, sloppy kiss from leading lady Blythe Danner, who is effortlessly lovely and irresistibly charismatic as the queenly head of a fractious theatrical family in his new play, “The Country House.” The scribe also gets a big hug from Daniel Sullivan’s buttery direction, which slathers a golden gloss over the plot holes and character cracks in his pleasant but hardly earth-moving play.
Margulies, a Pulitzer winner for “Dinner With Friends” (revived earlier this year by Roundabout), knows how to set up a dramatic situation. Anna Patterson (Danner), a celebrated actress on the order of, well, Blythe Danner, arrives at her country home in Williamstown, Mass., where she, like Danner herself, has summered for years as leading lady of the Williamstown Theater Festival. Softly lighted by Peter Kaczorowski and lovingly designed by John Lee Beatty in warm woods, earth-tone fabrics, and lots of books, Anna’s shabby-chic retreat is both spacious and cozy enough to accommodate the star (who looks stunning in Rita Ryack’s casually glamorous outfits), her family and a few unexpected friends. (Not to mention the ghosts of all the Chekhovian characters who inspired them.)
Sadly, the reunion is not as happy this year, because it marks the first anniversary of the death of Anna’s daughter, Kathy, a successful actress in her own right. So there are mournful undercurrents in the demeanor of the rest of the household: Kathy’s brother, Elliot (Eric Lange), a failed actor and the house grouch; her daughter, Susie (Sarah Steele), a smart kid who isn’t impressed with the dramatic swagger of her family; Kathy’s husband, Walter (David Rasche), a big movie director who had the bad taste to bring along his beautiful new girlfriend, Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), another actress; and Michael (Daniel Sunjata), a heartthrob TV star and family friend, slumming at Williamstown in “The Guardsman.”
The first act is pretty much wall-to-wall banter, some of it quite funny, between people professionally trained to get their laughs. When among friends, theater people can be remarkably candid and wryly witty about living like gypsies, aging out of roles, selling out for the big bucks, basking in the limelight and the constant fear of failure. Smart Susie has her own, hard-bitten sense of ironic humor, and Steele nails it.
The subtext of their repartee is unspoken but conveyed in the sexual sparks directed at Nell and Michael and the jealous jabs traded among the lovelorn rejects. Sunjata and Grant do their darnedest not to blush while playing these coveted love objects, characters who are repeatedly referred to as being drop-dead beautiful and irresistibly charismatic. The sense of yearning expressed by everyone else lends a Chekhovian edge of melancholy to the snappy patter.
But the spirit of Chekhov doesn’t fully step out from the shadows until Elliot, the misery-wallowing Vanya/Trigorin/Konstantin figure played to the hilt by Lange, pronounces himself a playwright and produces a script that the entire household is guilt-forced to acknowledge with a group reading. We don’t actually get to hear this play, which is a blessing; but we’re told that the hero murders his mother, burns down the family home, and commits suicide at the end. This leads to some lively second-act truth-telling before the longwinded wrap-up. Rasche is riveting when Walter finally stands up to defend life choices that everyone else mocks as a midlife crisis. And Lange has his moment in the sun (or his moment under a lunatic moon) when Elliot finally has his meltdown.
Of all the devastating judgments that a glamorous and successful mother might say to her loser of a child at such a moment, Margulies comes up with a beauty for Anna to deliver to Elliot: “You’re not interesting.”
Unfortunately, the same might be said — with a bit of a twist — to these characters: You’re interesting, but not interesting enough.