Blythe Danner is known mostly these days as the mother of celebrity daughter Gwyneth Paltrow, although the venerable Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress has had a long and wonderfully varied career in all venues, so be assured that this is the last mention of her family affiliation (although I was friendly a long time ago with her late husband, the brilliant actor/director Bruce Paltrow.) Last night Blythe joined a very, very talented cast in the world premiere of a fascinating play, "The Country House," by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Donald Margulies, whom we have praised in several prior reviews here on Huffington. I admired his plays, from "Dinner With Friends" to "Coney Island Christmas," as well as "Time Stands Still" and "Sight Unseen." This is a stalwart body of works, six shows alone at the Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood (310-208-5454), and he succeeds - in a fashion - with this, his seventh, which is a co-production of the Geffen with the Manhattan Theater Club (an estimable group furthering on-the-edge works. They will present this play there on Broadway in the fall with Danner in the same role.) Tony winner Daniel Sullivan ("Time Stands Still") directs.
A word abut the many talented cast members: while Bythe seems to be the preeminent name, I found that several other members of the cast actually outshone her in this evening's work. Scott Foley, whose work I admired in The Unit (I miss that TV show) and Felicity, as well as playing Olivia's love interest in the red-hot Scandal; Eric Lange (Weeds), David Rasche, Emily Swallow (The Mentalist) and Sarah Steele ("Spanglish).
My ex, who saw it in previews, told me that is a comedy about a deeply dramatic family. I actually think it is a family more disfunctional than dramatic....or both. The program notes said it was inspired by Chekhov's pastoral comedies, though I question whether Anton would recognize the bones of his work here. Perhaps because it is about a family of performers coming to terms with the role they play in each other's lives. Perhaps. The setup is intriguing: a gathering in their Berkshire (New England) home during the Williamstown Theater Festival summer season. Events on the weekend go off-script, secrets are spilled and bonds are broken.....threatening the already fragile foundation of a home brimming with old memories and discarded dreams. Come to think of it, yes, Chekov would recognize this, it's The Cherry Orchard and The Sea Gull, perhaps a little of Uncle Vanya. Interesting note: early in her career Blythe Danner scored a major success at Williamstown playing a role in The Sea Gull opposite Frank Langella. What goes around comes around. Here she plays the famed actress matriarch of the family which has come together on the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death. Scott plays Michael, a famous TV actor up there trying to polish his image by doing a play at the festival. Eric Lange, playing Elliot, the only son, is a failed actor who is now trying to be a writer. Insecure in this famous family, he is a flailing character, a 'boy' growing into an insecure man, who is probably the sickest of the lot. David Rasche, the ex-husband of the late daughter, plays a theatre director who sold out to the movies by directing those horrible (and very successful) action films. He shows up with his new fiancée, Emily Swallow, a totally beautiful actress who had a brief platonic affair with Elliot some 11 years ago. For me, the real star of the ensemble was the young girl, Sarah Steele, who plays Susie, the daughter of the deceased woman and her movie director husband. She is sardonically funny, charming, and a little bit lost.
When the weekend takes an unexpected turn, everyone is sort of forced to improvise....unleashing simmering jealousies, a few romantic outbursts, and lots of soul-searching. The performers are coming to terms with how they play in each other's lives. It's a terrific premise for a backstage play, and for two of the three acts it works beautifully. I loved them....and then came that third act, the second half of the evening, and I felt the playwright was striving for some poignant, moving resolution....but not getting there....yet.
Now for the hard part...as a reviewer who hates to be negative. I must admit that I absolutely disliked the entire third act. I thought it was a different play..and a nasty one. I must caution the playwright and the Manhattan group not to bring this play into New York in September as is. It will be reviled by the critics and the audiences. . What went wrong? Well, for one thing the third act is dominated by the failed son, Elliot, and he is a big, bearded, bald whiny bore. Perhaps it is a case of miscasting...Eric Lange is a superb actor who looms so large in the action of the act that it throws the ensemble off course. I read an interview which Donald gave in the program notes, and he admitted that it was still "a work in progress." So there is time for a rethinking and revision of that act, to soften the irritant of the son's antics and resolve it better. Blythe ends on a strange and bitter note and I sensed the audience was angry at the entire course of these events. Later, in the lobby, I did talk to many people who expressed this frustration.
I still strongly recommend that you see this play...the ensemble cast is excellent, the first half is wonderful, and you will have chance to criticize my comments or agree with them....after all, that's part of the fun of the theatre.
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