In Donald Margulies’ Geffen premiere “The Country House,” genuine legend Blythe Danner effortlessly embodies fictional legend Anna Patterson, doyenne of a handsome summer home in that bastion of A-list summer theater, Williamstown, Mass., where Danner has often worked. A first-rate ensemble engages in witty banter, expertly marshalled by helmer Daniel Sullivan. Yet diverting as it is, Margulies’ self-acknowledged riff on Chekhovian characters and themes — in a production bound for Broadway later this year — fails to take flight on Chekhov’s terms or any other. It just sort of sits there, patchworky, little at stake.
The quarreling mother and son of “The Seagull” are evoked here, along with snatches of traits and incidents from that play, “The Cherry Orchard” and “Uncle Vanya.” Matching up all the references would be a fun party game. But a bucolic bouillabaisse of familiar types does not automatically a Chekhovian event make, even given such an occasion for melancholy and rue as a memorial for the family’s shining star Kathy, dead of cancer a year ago at age 41.
In Chekhov’s world, self-absorbed people bemoan their fate and get into trouble with too much time on their hands. Yet “The Country House” is abuzz with activity and purpose. Anna’s learning lines for Shaw’s Mrs. Warren, while houseguest, TV megastar and catnip-to-all-ladies Michael Astor (Scott Foley) is about to start rehearsing “The Guardsman.”
Kathy’s widower, world-famous helmer Walter (David Rasche), arrives from LA with dazzling new flame Nell (Emily Swallow) as he preps installment IV of a multibillion-dollar tentpole franchise. Resenting dad’s g.f. is daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), clad in black and snapping at everyone. But she’s an ambitious Yalie, no idler.
This remarkably well-adjusted (given their Chekhovian forebears) quintet contrasts with Elliot (Eric Lange), brother to Kathy, son to Anna and annoyance to everybody. This unkempt layabout in ratty T and soiled sweats is an analog to “Sea Gull” character Konstantin, a jealous underachiever with mommy issues whose failed acting career has prompted a late entry into playwrighting. As in the Chekhov play, his maiden effort is read aloud with predictably indignant results.
Lange’s strenuous efforts can’t bring pathos or layers to this lout. Konstantin’s youthful complaints of marginalization and neglect are downright unseemly coming from a balding, middle-aged whiner. Given no compelling debating points to make, Elliot’s just a punching bag whose number everyone has: “You’re not interesting,” Mom admits. “You’re out of control,” avers Walter. Even Elliot knows it: “For years I was the only nobody in the room.”
When Elliot’s not sucking all the air out of that room, Margulies is taking pains to suppress conflicts and lower the temperature. You’d expect Walter or Michael to be torn about their success, or Anna to dread aging, but all shoulder their burdens with equanimity and few regrets. Anna’s desire, confessed to Michael at the eleventh hour, is barely hinted at earlier. A cliffhanger late-night tryst, witnessed by all, is virtually forgotten after intermission.
As for the late Kathy, don’t expect the “magnificent” lady with “translucent skin,” “beautiful” and “a tremendous capacity for happiness” to be subject to late-inning reconsideration. This paragon proves a device to prompt nostalgia and a banal denouement, never for a moment coming to life.
The company bites into Margulies’ thin gruel as if it were prime filet. Foley and Swallow are particular standouts in their conviction and charisma. Sweeping Rita Ryack’s elegant scarves and bunting in her wake, Danner is the perfect grande dame.
But all must feel the same frustration we do in the ramping down of tension, the perfunctory confrontations, the minimal opportunities to present characters as growing or changing or just plain cutting loose.
How odd that an author who so trenchantly tussled with a much more fraught topic – high-risk photojournalism – in “Time Stands Still,” should seem so disengaged with a giddy environment much closer to home, the theater community.