Dinner With Friends. Shipwrecked! Collected Stories. Sight Unseen. Coney Island Christmas. And now comes Donald Margulies’ latest, The Country House, a captivating look at a contemporary American Royal Family of stage and screen, with stage-and-screen star Blythe Danner bringing her own brand of radiance to the Geffen Playhouse. Who could ask for anything more?
Danner stars as Anna Patterson, glamorous 70ish theatrical icon, whose family has reunited for the weekend at their century-old house in the Berkshires to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Anna’s movie star daughter Kathy’s untimely death at the age of 41.
Chief among the mourners is Kathy’s 40something brother Elliot (Eric Lange), himself an actor, but one whose career has never progressed beyond “promising,” and who finds himself more than ever in the shadow of his illustrious mother and his late movie star sister.
Also home for the weekend are Kathy’s widower Walter (David Rasche) and their college-age daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), none too pleased that 68-year-old Dad is bringing along his 30something actress girlfriend Nell (Emily Swallow), the last thing a grieving daughter wants on a weekend that ought to be about celebrating her mother’s too-short life and not her father’s newly hopeful future.
Completing the picture is Anna’s long-ago costar, 40ish TV star Michael Astor (Scott Foley), whom Anna has invited to join the family reunion as he awaits a) the airing out of his recently fumigated summer rental and b) the start of rehearsals for The Guardsman at the same theater where Anna’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is set to open as soon as Michael’s play closes.
Smaller in number than George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Royal Family, Anna’s clan haven’t all achieved the same level of fame as the Cavendish dynasty. Elliot, for instance, having pretty much failed in his acting career, now believes that playwriting might just be the way to go. As for his niece Susie, well the last thing the decidedly un-glamorous college senior wants is to follow in her mother and grandmother’s “second-oldest” profession.
As far as this weekend in particular is concerned, the last thing Susie wants is to spend it with her father’s three-decades-younger lover in the family’s midst.
Not that father and daughter’s relationship is all that much to begin with.
Dear old Dad, once a respected if minor stage director before abandoning “the theater” when Hollywood called, has in recent years amassed considerable fame and fortune directing a series of “Truck Stop” movies, a franchise adored by 15-year-old boys the world round though not by family members who see Walter’s Tinseltown success as a sellout.
Still, Susie might actually have enjoyed a few days with her father had Walter not opted to arrive accompanied by Nell, whose career so far has been limited to small TV roles and seems to auger even less now that she finds herself only up for “sympathetic school teacher,” which as anyone knows is merely “a step before mother.”
Complicating matters further is the torch Elliot has been carrying for onetime costar Nell since his unconsummated (and possibly unrequited) “romance” with her eleven years ago. How dare his “ex” show up on the family doorstep as Elliot’s sister’s widower’s date, especially given her past “relationship” with her senior-citizen boyfriend’s brother-in-law.
And then there’s Michael, tall, ripped, leading-man handsome, successful … in other words everything Elliot is not, particularly since achieving recent fame and fortune as the lead in a hit medical/sci-fi series. Both Anna and Susie seem quite taken by this unexpected weekend guest, and where grandmother and granddaughter go, can dad’s young girlfriend be far behind?
If one thing is certain by the end of The Country House’s opening scene, it is this. With Anna, Walter, Nell, Elliot, Susie, Michael, and Kathy’s memory all under the same roof this weekend, sparks are going to fly.
Never one to repeat himself, Pulitzer-prize winner Margulies mixes Royal Family tradition with a bit of August: Osage County-style dysfunction to splendidly entertaining effect in his latest two-acter, World Premiering at the Geffen before a scheduled Broadway debut this coming October for Manhattan Theatre Club with Danner once again its star.
Broadway/Hollywood lovers will find particular fascination as Margulies’ characters engage in the kind of heated discussions likely to take place when stage actors and Hollywood players find themselves under the same roof, and while it’s true that Anna Patterson and her offspring may not be the proverbial folks next door, the bonds that tie them tightly together and the built-up resentments that tear them apart are universal, as is the grief they share and their path towards recovery.
Tony winner (and longtime Margulies collaborator) Daniel Sullivan directs The Country House with accustomed precision and flair, his stellar cast doing all-around splendid work.
Like Margulies’ previous hits, his latest seems headed towards considerable post-Broadway success in regional, 99-seat, and community theaters, but there’s something special at the Geffen in seeing stars playing stars, Danner’s career stretching all the way back to the early ‘70s and Foley’s going strong indeed opposite Kerry Washington on TV’s Scandal.
Danner is, not surprisingly, absolutely incandescent as Anna, and it’s hard to imagine a finer choice to play Michael than the handsome, talented, charismatic Foley. Rasche’s thriving if conflicted Walter, Swallow’s warm and likeable Nell, and Steele’s feisty but vulnerable Susie are all three absolutely terrific as well.
Best of all is Lange, who takes Elliot, the play’s angriest, most conflicted, least likeable, and most richly developed character and makes him the one our hearts ache for.
With two-time Tony-winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty giving us as gorgeously detailed a Berkshires house as any audience member would want to call home, 2014 Tony nominee Rita Ryack costuming Anna and family to character-defining perfection, Tony-winning Peter Kaczorowski lighting set and costumes to vivid/subtle effect, and Broadway vets Jon Gottlieb and Peter Golub providing (respectively) the production’s expert sound design and evocative original music, and you’ve got a show that’s ready to make its West-to-East Coast transfer this fall.
Young Ji is production stage manager and Maggie Swing assistant stage manager. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA and Caparelliotis Casting. Scott Behrend is assistant director.
The sixth Geffen-Margulies collaboration, The Country House is one of both the theater’s and the playwright’s best. That we Angelinos get to see it here in L.A. several months before its Broadway debut is icing on the cake.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Through July 13. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 310 208-5454
June 12, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont