Most playwrights seem to have a Chekhovian impulse they need to get out of their system, and David Margulies's new play The Country House, which opened last night on Broadway, is better than most of them.
With a top-flight cast led by a charming Blythe Danner and smooth direction from Daniel Sullivan, The Country House combines an often funny sendup of actors, directors, and writers with some touching scenes on a mother, daughter, and husband dealing with untimely death. There is even a moral at the end.
The house of the title is located just outside Williamstown, Mass., and while there are no seagulls for at least 100 miles, it is inhabited by a theatrical family and their hangers-on who descend on the Berkshires for the town's summer stock season and to observe the first anniversary of the death of one of its members from cancer.
The matriarch of this collection of self-absorbed actors and directors is Anna Patterson, wonderfully underplayed by Danner with only a hint of the grande dame but just enough sense of her star power to expect she will always get what she wants. She has returned to the family house in Williamstown to play the title role of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession and is having trouble getting her lines off.
Anna is a bona fide leading lady of the Great White Way, though when someone points this out to her, she crisply replies: "There are no Broadway stars any more. There are stars on Broadway, but no Broadway stars."
The full-time resident of the house is her son Elliot Cooper, a failed actor who has taken refuge in bitterness and the bottle and whose self-pity is even greater than the egos of the rest of the party. Elliot has been secretly working on - need I say? - a play and he is determined to seize the opportunity of having a houseful of actors on hand to hold a reading of it.
Anna has run into Michael Astor, a dashingly handsome young actor who was once part of the family circle and is now a famous TV star and celebrity, at the local supermarket and invited him to stay at the house. Michael is also doing a play at the Williamstown Festival and does charitable work in Africa, an undertaking he has made sure is reported in all the gossip magazines and social media.
The weekend also marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Anna's daughter Kathy, who also had been a movie star. To commemorate the occasion her former husband, Walter Keegan, a director known for his "Truck Stop" movies (he's now up to "Truck Stop IV"), has shown up with his new fiancée, Nell McNally, another actress, who is roughly half his age. It also turns out that Elliot has known Nell in the past and has fantasized about her ever since.
The one normal person in the house is Susie Keegan, Anna's granddaughter, who is studying religion and psychology at Yale (she could write her thesis on her family) and who can trade barbs with any of them.
Once the characters are all introduced, the plot becomes rather predictable. All of the women in the house will try to get into bed with Michael, who is sleeping on the living-room sofa; the 60-something Walter will fail to keep up with his 30-something girlfriend and injure himself; and Elliot will threaten suicide when suggestions are made for improving his play.
Depending on one's tolerance for watching actors play actors whose topics of conversation is pretty much limited to talking about themselves, The Country House will either amuse and titillate with all its in-jokes, argot, and name-dropping or catch you sneaking glances at your watch.
The good all-round cast, however, helps keep one's interest from flagging. David Rasche is in his usual fine form as Walter and his spirited justification for directing schlock movies - because pubescent teen-aged boys have a right to be entertained and because it makes him a lot of money - is almost convincing. Eric Lange is venomously spiteful as Elliot, and Sarah Steele delivers a fine performance as Susie, vulnerable and yearning for a normal family but hiding behind a shield of sarcasm.
When the play deals with real human emotions, such as the death of a loved one, The Country House becomes touching and the scenes take on meaning. At other times, Margulies's writing can be as clichéd as his show-biz characters.