Monday, October 6, 2014

Broadway Review: The Country House


A Tip of the Hat to Chekhov While Creating a Family Drama All Its Own
By Lauren Yarger
All the world’s a stage and by the number of productions of his works or productions owing their inspiration to his works one would think drama could not take place without Anton Chekhov. Donald Margulies’ newest play, The Country House getting a Broadway run by Manhattan Theatre Club, tips its hat to The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, but happily focuses on the roles people play in the drama unfolding on life’s stage rather than on trying to pay homage to the Russian classics.

Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty sets the stage with a comfortable-looking, gable-roofed family cottage in the Berkshires. Its location has been convenient for the family of actors and theater types who stay there while working at the Williamstown festival. But that is the end of convenient and comfortable for this family.

The gathering this season is bittersweet as it marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of popular Kathy, who in many ways held the family together.

Matriarch and Queen of the Theater Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner) agrees to let her director/ son-in-law, Walter (David Rasche), bring his new and much-younger actress fiancee Nell (Kate Jennings Grant) to the house, a decision that is not popular with granddaughter, Susie (Sarah Steele) who still misses her mom or unemployed actor/son, Elliot (Eric Lange) who hasn’t gotten over the loss of his sister and best friend. Not only is Nell seen as a too-soon replacement for the beloved Kathy, but the family can’t figure out why such a beauty would want to be saddled with an aging guy facing knee-replacement surgery, unless of course, she is just after his money or a starring role in one of his films…
Also causing angst is Anna’s decision to invite old friend Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata) to stay at the house during his Williamstown engagement since his own house is being fumigated. Astor and Kathy had been lovers and Susie, who has been following the very successful career of the dashingly good-looking, old family friend, lets him know that she is interested in pursuing some of the other action the actor is famous for  -- in bed.  Meanwhile, Anna lets Michael know that he is welcome in her bed if he gets tired of sleeping on the couch in the living room. . . To the sexual frustration of Grandmother and Granddaughter, however, Michael’s eye roams toward Nell.
When pathetic loser Elliot announces that he has written a play and wants the family to do a reading of it, the tension really ratchets up a few notches leading to revelations about Elliot’s feelings of playing understudy to Kathy in his mother’s affections all his life. In fact, all of the family members explore the roles they play with each other. Could any of them even be nominated for an “Unconditional Love” Tony?
Standing out on the performance side in this production are Steele (“Spanglish”), who plays the self-confident, blunt-speaking Susie with a fierceness that rips off the drama masks being worn by her family members and Lange (“The Bridge,” “Weeds,” “Lost”), who delivers sarcastic lines of rapier wit with a fine-edged sword. The humor is a defense for a very depressed guy behind the tragedy mask and Lange expertly shows us the complexities of a character who just wants to be loved.
Danner, much like the grand dame she portrays, delivers a layered performance with a touch of elegance, and Daniel Sullivan aptly directs solid performances from the rest of the ensemble: We understand Walter, feel for Nell and discover shallowness under Michael’s “Hollywood-star-but-I’m-a-Humanitarian” charity work to build schools in the Congo.

While the plot developments are fairly predictable (though there is one surprise, delightfully revealed by Lighting Director Peter Kaczorowski ), Pulitzer-prize winner Margulies (Dinner With Friends) delivers a family drama all its own in this homage to Chekhov.

The Country House plays through Dec. 9 at  Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., NYC.  http://www.manhattantheatreclub.org/

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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