“Starvation is not a virtue,” says Walter, a middle-aged creative type who left his marriage to the theatre for a lucrative gig in Hollywood. Walter’s pronouncement perfectly encapsulates the themes of Donald Margulies’ The Country House, a family drama that underscores the Broadway star’s status as an endangered species. Appropriate parallels are drawn from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, and the writing shines in its banter, which is for the most part witty (though at times a bit canned). The questions of artistic integrity and family obligation that are demonstrated in this dark comedy won’t stir up too many feelings, but they won’t make you starve, either. Unfortunately, despite screaming Chekhovian influence, it mostly reads as soap opera satire.
Blythe Danner perfectly embodies elegant veteran actress Anna Patterson, who has come to the Berkshires to lend her name to the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s marquee. Though her name no longer guarantees lines around the block, it still inspires a hushed awe amongst the younger and sturdier thespians who are climbing the ranks to replace her, deliberately or not. Finally able to unfreeze herself after her daughter’s death from cancer, she has invited her immediate family to summer with her in her spacious country home. Danner’s raspy yet authoritative tone precedes her as she floats from kitchen to living room, flitting about the mixed bag of family issues that are neatly presented.
Thrust into the “woe is me” pressure cooker of Anna’s influence is her failed actor-slash-playwright son Elliot (Eric Lange), a sad sack who drips cynicism and self-pity with all the grace and poise of a bull in a china shop. There’s the TV star Michael (Daniel Sunjata), whose Hollywood life and good looks put him in the center of attention whether he likes it or not. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the snappy college-age granddaughter, Susie (Sarah Steele), her father Walter (David Rasche), who’s in the midst of a midlife crisis, and his noticeably beautiful girlfriend Nell (Kate Jennings Grant). And, of course, there is the ghost of Kathy — Walter’s late wife, Susie’s mother, and Anna’s daughter. But you never need fear forgetting about her, as Kathy’s memory is conveniently sprinkled in whenever the family tension becomes a little too vanilla.
Though Country House is set mid-summer, there is a gooey holiday feel to it. The play is pleasant enough but barely moves. It skims lightly over the surface of deep-rooted family problems, but rarely if ever scoops in to catch the meat of the issues. There’s an almost-kiss, an almost-brawl, all flimsy attempts at the slap-in-the-face abrasiveness that made Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County such a successful study of family toxicity.
The characters here are neither intensely unlikable, nor are they endearing. The first act is amusing enough, the second act promises to be affecting, and then the curtain drops, with barely a feather ruffled. The play dips a toe into a show of strength between the play’s two powerhouses, Anna and Elliot. Their verbal sparring at the play’s conclusion is pitiful to watch; despite the best efforts of the actors, it’s lukewarm at best — a shame, given that chronic loser Elliot is superbly shouldered by Eric Lange. His meltdown is aggressive but never unsympathetic.
The main problem with this family dynamic is that it reads as frustratingly artificial. There was never enough evidence of this family having any kind of friction, so we the audience are not sure if the denouement is meant to be read as the shocking reveal of a Big Family Secret, or just a supposed eruption after years of stewing.