Donald Margulies’ new play, The Country House, opened on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on October 2, 2014. The play stars Blythe Danner as an aging Broadway star who returns to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in an attempt to fill the hole that age has placed in her career. She returns with her son, Elliot (Eric Lange), granddaughter (Sarah Steele), and son-in-law (David Rasche), along with her son-in-law’s new fiancé (Kate Jennings Grant) and a former theatre colleague fresh off of a hit TV show (Daniel Sunjata). This motley crew of theatre folk find themselves under one roof while they work in and around the theatre festival.
Danner’s portrayal of the aging star, Anna Patterson, is certainly something to see. Ms. Danner brings her subtle acting style to Mr. Margulies’ mostly sharp dialogue. Danner’s character is by far the most interesting and varied of the bunch. She undergoes a quiet transformation from the opening scene to the closing. The great cloud that looms over the country house is that Patterson’s beloved daughter has recently passed away and her loved ones have all struggled (in different ways) to cope with her death. Margulies shows his skills by painting vastly different pictures of grief in each of the aforementioned characters, though none more masterfully than in the penultimate scene in which Anna and her son, Elliot (Lange), finally clash over his paranoia about his mother’s love.
The play has a beautiful, steady build to the dialogue and dutifully mixes heightened drama with witty comedy. That being said, the play has moments that feel entirely self-indulgent. Margulies allows the story to become a bit melodramatic in much of the second act (particularly between Elliot (Lange) and Walter (Rasche), culminating in an actual brawl.) Ms. Jennings Grant is also a stand out as she becomes entangled in a house full of messy emotions and past (and current) lovers. Ms. Steele makes a lovely Broadway debut as the sassy, beloved granddaughter to Danner’s Anna. Broadway vet, David Rasche, is impossibly (sometimes to a fault) charming as Walter Keegan, Anna’s former son-in-law. Daniel Sunjata is perfectly cast as the all too attractive, Michael Astor, a former theatre mate and now A-list television star. The cast plays beautifully together and their chemistry is palpable, in no small part because of Daniel Sullivan’s skillful direction. The production design at Manhattan Theatre Club is always impressive and John Lee Beatty’s set and Rita Ryack’s costumes are no different.
I applaud non-profit theatre companies like Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout Theatre Company for taking risks on new works and presenting them with the same flair as the classics. That being said, The Country House is a charming walk through the summer of a theatre crowd and nothing more. This is not Margulies’ best work, nor his worst, but it is a lovely way to spend an afternoon (as I did) and you will not be disappointed having seen Ms. Danner at the top of her game.