The house in the title of Donald Margulies’ 2014 play is the Berkshire abode of famed stage and screen actress Anna Patterson (Cary Anne Spear), who has returned for a summer stint playing the title role in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It’s the scene of a poignant reunion: a year ago, Anna’s daughter Kathy, also a famed actress and film star, died of cancer right in the living room, and her family has now gathered to mark the anniversary. There’s her sad-sack brother Elliot (David Cabot), a failed actor and wannabe playwright; her husband Walter (Christopher Josephs), a successful film producer; and her daughter Susie (Maggie Carr), home for the summer from Yale. And – to spice up the mix a bit – there are also a couple of unexpected guests: Walter has brought along his new, rather too young girlfriend Nell (Marie Elena O’Brien), an aspiring film actress he met at a Starbucks in LA, and Anna has invited an old family friend – and now major TV heartthrob – Michael Astor (Paul Anthony Reynolds) to bunk with them while he waits for his rented apartment to be cleared of pesticide fumes.
What ensues in this house full of “theater people” involves shared memories, attempted seductions, confessions, accusations, recriminations, and rather overly candid appraisals of personality flaws. If this sounds to you a little like the setup you’d find in a Chekhov play, you’d not be far off the mark: in fact, many times during the performance I was reminded of both The Seagull and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. All three take place in a “country house” sedimented with significance for the characters, all three have a depressive central character (here, it’s Eliot) whose awful new play is read aloud and duly dismissed, and all three mix comedy and pathos to probe their characters’ dreams, regrets, and fantasies.
But Margulies is not quite Chekhov: The Country House feels meandering and low-stakes, and it’s hard to feel a strong connection to these characters or their problems. In particular, Eliot – modeled, presumably, on the mom-obsessed-failed-playwright Konstantin of The Seagull – is a singularly unsympathetic loser, in whom we never see any sign of the qualities that might have made him successful (or even likeable). Cabot finds moments of self-deprecating comedy to play to good effect, but the character is so overladen with self-pity that as audience we may too readily agree with Anna’s brutally unkind assessment of her only living child: “You’re not interesting.”
Under John Amplas’s direction the ensemble does a good job of conveying the play’s often biting humor. Carr is particularly compelling and bracing as the college-aged Susie, who came to the house expecting close family time to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death and instead must cope with both her resentment against her father’s new girlfriend and her long-nurtured crush on Michael (who, it turns out, was also her mother’s ex-lover). The set, designed by Michael Thomas Essad, feels – suitably – like a character in the play itself, its well-worn furniture and framed posters and playbills conjuring the many decades of life now irrecoverably past for these characters. Likewise, Steve Shapiro’s sound design seems yet another character, especially as his simulated weather helps drive the momentum of the scene. But the fine design and solid performances can only do so much to energize this verbally witty but otherwise lackluster script.