Stage review: The Rep gives 'Country House' a polished production
September 9, 2015 12:00 AM
David Cabot as Elliot Patterson, and Cary Anne Spear as Anna Patterson, in rehearsal for "The Country House."
By Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As the adage goes, all happy families are the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in different ways. True or not, it does suggest the complexity and interest of “The Country House,” where Anna, Elliot and Susie and their in-and-out-laws are variously unhappy and sporadically happy, as well.
It certainly helps that the family and its outliers are all in and of the theater, which is to say we excuse them — actually expect — their eccentricities. David Margulies’ family comedy with dark layers is like other American family plays about theater folks, like “The Royal Family.” But it harkens back most to “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya,” Chekhov’s great modern archetypes of the comi-tragic family drama, theatrical themes included.
When: Through Sept. 20. Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$29; www.pittsburghplayhouse.com/tickets or 412-392-8000.
Not that “Country House” is on a par with Chekhov. It is a very American, wise-cracking Broadway family comedy in the mode of Neil Simon, with occasional moments of near-farce. But as much as I enjoyed its comedy (both at the Playhouse and last year on Broadway), it does run somewhat thin, and what ultimately justifies it is that darker mood.
The site of the story is a comfortable vacation house in the Berkshires, near the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where New York actors get back to their summertime roots. Skillfully staged by Playhouse Rep (the Point Park professional company), it has a living room designed by Michael Thomas Essad that is handsome though rather bourgeois, without the bohemian air you’d expect.
The family includes Anna (Cary Anne Spear), a grand dame of the New York theater who has also had her starring days on film and TV; her granddaughter, Susie (Maggie Carr), still in college; and her son, Elliot (David Cabot), a self-confessed failure, and very bitter about it.
The potent non-presence is Kathy — Fanny’s daughter, Elliot’s sister and Susie’s mom — who died just a year ago and whose spirit haunts them all. (One of the weaknesses of the play is that we never fully believe in her charisma, just hear others talk about it.)
The outliers are Walter (Christopher Josephs), Kathy’s widower, a successful Hollywood director. He has brought along a much younger beauty, Nell (Marie Elena O’Brien), in order to introduce her to his daughter and former wife’s family as his fiancee — a fraught situation. Rounding out the cast of six is Michael (Paul Anthony Reynolds), a famous and handsome screen star, once Anna’s co-star on stage (and off), now the object of amatory interest of all the women. (I hope it isn’t churlish to note that half the cast doesn’t quite live up, or down, to the play’s expectations of glamour or plainness.)
There are loads of references to and quasi-quotations from famous plays, which creates an entertaining substratum of theatrical wit. One small example: 24 years ago, Michael had played Marchbanks (a young poet) opposite Anna’s Candida, which suggests many parallels. Quotes from Shakespeare reverberate. But situations and characters remain closest to Chekhov.
Still, for theatrical novice and expert alike, the main humor is in the caustic commentary of the unhappy Elliot and Susie, with his descending into self-laceration. Whereas on Broadway, the play seemed to rotate around Blythe Danner’s rueful Anna, here, Mr. Cabot becomes its sour, hapless, raging heart, begging for love he cannot accept. “You’re on everybody’s ‘life’s-too-short’ list,” says Walter.
I think director John Amplas and Playhouse Rep get it right: centering the play on Elliot gives it more Chekovian bite than perhaps it even deserves. The rest of the production is polished, with Joan Markert’s spot-on costumes, and Andrew David Ostrowski’s lights help us find our way through eight times over three days.
“Country House” is a good play, not great, that deserved a longer run on Broadway and should do well around the country. Here, it runs just three more weeks.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.
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