It’s natural for a contemporary playwright to aspire to Chekhov’s genius. After all, like Shakespeare, Ibsen, O’Neill, Miller, Williams, and a handful of others, the Russian master is one of only a select few whose works are considered classics, revived and rediscovered often enough to become part of our cultural lexicon. Chekhov, perhaps more so than any other writer for the stage, was able in his work to capture the feelings of loneliness and jealousy that we all fall into at some stage in our lives.
So it seems apt to view Sharr White’s aching new family drama, The Snow Geese, now running at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s season (in a co-production with MCC Theater), through the lens of Chekhov’s oeuvre. Despite being set in Syracuse, New York in 1917, White’s is a play that aspires to a grandiosity that it never quite reaches, perhaps at least in part because of its own self-conscious designs. Making use of Chekhov’s common themes of estate planning and family dysfunction, White attempts to give audiences an Important play, but what results despite its efforts is sadly maudlin.
The plot is fairly simple. The widowed Elizabeth Gaesling (Mary-Louise Parker, doing her usual icy motions) welcomes home her eldest son, Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit), a soldier, for a final visit home before he ships off to France to fight in the war. Elizabeth’s sister, Clarissa (Victoria Clark, splendid), and Clarissa’s physician husband, Max (Danny Burstein), have been helping to take care of the Gaesling family lodge since its patriarch’s demise, with the help of Elizabeth’s astute younger son Arnold, who’s also taken to evaluating the family’s financial records.
While home, Duncan stirs up plenty of drama — he argues with Arnold over the state of the books (Arnold says the family’s flat broke) — and ridicules his uncle’s German heritage (a source of much contention in wartime America). Ultimately, the play hinges on his deployment and on Arnold’s path forward in his brother’s absence.
There is some fine acting on display here (most notably from Clark and Burstein), as well as evenly-paced direction from master direct Daniel Sullivan — but the production as a whole suffers from writing that’s heavy-handed when it, ideally, could have taken a lighter, more naturalistic approach. White’s writing is most free-flowing when it focuses on Max and Clarissa, or on the family’s new Ukranian maid (Jessica Love), but sinks into melodrama too often for its own good.
Beautiful design work, most notably from scenic designer John Lee Beatty, helps to make this a handsome production, but even so, when the figurative geese are literalized — projected honking across the scenery during a scene break — it’s hard not to chuckle to oneself and roll one’s eyes. This one, despite its elegant trappings, ends up flying south after a handful of scenes for the winter, never to return.