Broadway is no stranger to plays that pay tribute to Anton Chekhov.
Donald Margulies’ The Country House, the latest offering from the Manhattan Theatre Club, is easily the wittiest homage to the prolific Russian playwright since the outrageous Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Taking place all under one roof, this new play follows the reunion of a family at their summer house one year after the death of one of their immediate members. What ensues is a dramedy chock-full of revealed family secrets and issues, declarations of love, self-discovery, lust, and all-around mayhem.
1–Blythe Danner Returns to the Broadway Stage
Two-time Tony Award winner Blythe Danner (The Miser; Butterflies Are Free) hasn’t been in a Broadway play since 1998. Sure, she’s been in a couple of musicals since then, but Danner’s acting roots are firmly planted in dramatic productions. With The Country House, she makes a triumphant return to form as Anna Patterson, the matriarch of a family recovering from the recent death of her daughter, Kathy. Anna also happens to be a renowned stage actress, allowing for Danner to take on a self-aware role that shows off both her comedic timing and vast dramatic range. Come time for the Tony Awards, Danner could be collecting her lucky number three.
2–Sarah Steele Steals the Show
While Danner is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, it’s 26-year-old Sarah Steele who leaves the most lasting impression after the curtain closes. Steele has been steadily building an impressive resume that boasts such television credits as The Good Wife, Girls, Nurse Jackie, and Gossip Girl. Now, her dynamic Broadway debut as Anna’s granddaughter truly announces the arrival of a new star. As Susie Keegan, Steele is simultaneously the heart of the show and its most relatable character. She keeps the rest of her family grounded by always pointing out the truth with her often hilariously dry humor, while also providing the play’s most poignant moment when she confronts her uncle about how poorly he’s handled the death of his sister.
3–John Lee Beatty’s Set Design
All of The Country House takes place inside a cozy living room. Set in a house in the Berkshires, the bucolic room is decorated with big sofas, Persian rugs that clash with the furniture, rich wooden bookshelves, a carpeted staircase, pastel curtains, rustic lamps, and wide open white doors. It’s practically impossible to look at the room and not want to snuggle up under a blanket there with a cup of tea on a rainy day. The house is meticulously detailed to look like a New England utopia saturated with decades of memories, almost making it a character in itself.
4–Diverse Depiction of Grief
The play gradually reveals just how all the characters have been impacted by Kathy’s death. After a year of feeling lost and depressed, Anna decides to get back into acting by signing onto a production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Acting is what she knows and does best, and she can begin to pick up the pieces of her life again by re-immersing herself in that world. Kathy’s widower, Walter (David Rasche), has already brought his new fiancée (Kate Jennings Grant) over to meet his family and help him cope with the anniversary of his wife’s passing. Elliot (Eric Lange), Anna’s son, turns to booze and drug use as a coping mechanism, terrorizing not only himself but also everyone around him. Kathy’s former flame, famous actor Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), is also appearing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and crashes at the Patterson home while his hotel undergoes renovations. He remembers Kathy fondly but is riddled with guilt over not attending her funeral. And Susie, home from college for the summer, acts as the voice of reason, keeping the group from coming apart. The roles that are assigned to each of these characters illustrate not just the different ways in which people grieve, but how a person’s presence can be constantly felt even after they’re long gone.
5–Commentary on Show Business
Aside from Susie, every character in The Country House works in the entertainment industry. Walter, a huge Hollywood director, is perfectly content making sequel after sequel in an action franchise that sees no sign of slowing down at the box office. He’s engaged to Nell, an out-of-luck actress he happened to meet at a Starbucks following a botched audition. Formerly a theater director, Walter addresses the stigmas that sometimes come with switching mediums and the idea of selling out. On the flip side, Michael is raking in millions as the face of a mindless TV phenomenon and thus turns to classic theater as a way of validating his craft and rediscovering himself as an actor. It’s established that Kathy was a well-known actress in her own right, which makes it even harder for Elliot to step out of his family’s shadow. As a result, the failed actor turns to playwriting as a desperate attempt at calling himself an artist, but ultimately can’t make that work either. Then, of course, there’s Anna, once an ingénue and now resigned to playing the role of the “old lady” in practically any project she chooses, despite the fact that she has very many years ahead of her. All of these characters provide stark contrasts and fascinating explorations of fame, acting, and how success is measured within the context of something as subjective as art.
PHOTOS | JOAN MARCUS VIA THECOUNTRYHOUSEBWAY.COM