If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that a trip to the country is never quite as relaxing as it seems. Just ask Anton Chekhov, Terrence McNally, Stephen Sondheim, Noël Coward, Christopher Durang, David Ives, Theresa Rebeck, Laura Eason or Sharr White — all who have all put their characters through turmoil while staying in cozy locales far from the hustle and bustle of city life.
It’s no surprise, then, that the quiet retreat at the center of Donald Margulies’ newest play, “The Country House,” is soon filled with fighting families, jealous lovers and enough hurt feelings to make even the Berkshires gloomy.
Regrettably, the action in the play, now open at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is far too contrived to make much of an impact.
Esteemed actress Blythe Danner, last with MTC in “The Commons of Pensacola,” stars as fictional legendary actress Anna Patterson, the matriarch of our country house. Like many actors, she’s returned to her country house in Williamstown, Massachusetts (where our country house lives) for summer stock. But she’s also gathered her family together in memory of her 41-year-old daughter Kathy, who died a year prior.
Coming to the grief-fest is Kathy’s widower Walter (David Rasche, of TV’s “Sledge Hammer”), a famed stage director who’s moved on to blockbuster action film franchises, and a new girlfriend named Nell (Kate Jennings Grant, of “The Lyons” and “Proof”). That’s not sitting well with his wise-beyond-her-years daughter Susie (Sarah Steele, of TV’s “The Good Wife”). Or Kathy’s failed-actor-turned-playwright son Elliot (Eric Lange, of TV’s “Lost,” “Weeds”), who coincidentally fell in love with Nell when they worked together 11 years prior.
Oh, and if that weren’t enough, childhood friend and hotshot actor Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata, of TV’s “Graceland”) has also swung by — and soon finds himself the object of lust for just about every female inhabitant around.
Margulies, supposedly, was heavily influenced by Chekhov, cutting and pasting characters and situations from “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya” to craft “The Country House.” Perhaps that explains why the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, of “Dinner with Friends” and “Time Stand Still,” is so muddled here. He seems bound by his device, not propelled by it.
The best moments in the play occur when Elliot debates the cause of his failed acting career with Walter and later, Anna. Discussions on talent versus ambition, fear versus ability and family obligation versus individual responsibility are where Margulies really shines, giving his actors intense emotions and meaty drama to chew on.
But those don’t come until late into the play’s third act, and by that point, you’ll have grown too tired of the cliché jokes about Hollywood or the multiple lightweight love-triangles to care. It’s as if the play would be successful if it could just get out of its own way. The foundation is there, but this “Country House” needs a renovation.
Despite a rocky structure, there are some winning performances. Danner is a treat as the steadfast and strong Anna, giving gravity and poise to a woman grieving the loss of her daughter and her youth. The venerable actress moves through much of the material here with ease, and you’ll be glad she’s leading the ship.
Steele makes an electric Broadway debut as Susie. The actress, who has been steadily working off-Broadway for the past few years, finds dry humor in Susie’s frankness and logic, while still remaining vulnerable. It’s the sort of performance that will make you wish she had more to do.
Lange does an excellent job embodying Elliot’s desperation and nastiness. But Margulies doesn’t give Elliot enough compassion to be anything but a villain. Instead, he comes off as an aggressive, bitter, lazy curmudgeon who feels betrayed by the world and everyone in it. “You practically insist that people hurt you,” Walter tells him in one scene. That’s a hard guy to like — and an even harder guy to understand and root for.
As for Rasche and Jennings Grant, well, they make a valiant effort, but their motivations aren’t often clear enough to keep us on their side. Sunjata, a Tony nominee for “Take Me Out,” seems the most lost with his dull character — a problem that was no doubt on his mind when he snuck outside to smoke a cigarette during intermission of the press performance I attended.
This is the tenth Margulies play MTC has produced, and the second director Daniel Sullivan has worked on (“Time Stands Still”). And while there are moments where all seem to be gelling properly, this is one country vacation that’s not worth the trouble.
"The Country House," at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St. Tickets: $67-$125. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.