Theater & Dance
Review
"The Country House"

By: Donald Margulies
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Featuring: Rosie Hallett, Kimberly King, Jason Kuykendall, Stephen Muterspaugh, Gary S. Martinez, and Marcia Pizzo
Directed by: Robert Kelley
Running time: 130 minutes, one intermission
When: August 26 through September 20, 2015
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $19-$80; Visit www.theatreworks.org/shows/1516-season/the-country-house or call 1-650-463-1960

Read John Orr's interview with playwright Donale Margulies in The Daily News.

Hallett, Muterspaugh, King
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Rosie Hallett as Susie Keegan, Stephen Muterspaugh as Elliot Cooper. and Kimberly King as Anna Patterson in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's regional premiere of "The Country House" by Donald Margulies, playing through September 20, 2015, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Chipping through thin skins
of a distressed theater family
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley stages Donald Margulies'
deceptively emotional 'The Country House'
September 4, 2015

A tranquil, attractive living room in a country home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts is the deceptively comfy setting for the TheatreWorks production of Donald Margulies' 2014 play "The Country House," at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through September 20, 2015.

That's because the people who live and/or visit that home are anything but tranquil and pleasant. Oh, perhaps on the surface they're nice enough, but there are mountains of wrought-up emotions and conflictions churning around inside them.

That's not to say that the actors themselves aren't wonderful. Several, in particular Rosie Hallett, Stephen Muterspaugh, Gary S. Martinez, and Marcia Pizzo, are top shelf, providing finely drawn portrayals of Margulies' characters.

But the roles themselves are almost caricatures of characters — the overly theatrical aging actress, the angst-driven son who never felt he got much of his mother's love or attention, the recent widower who almost immediately gloms on to another beautiful (and young) woman, the daughter who lost her mother and seethes with anger at her father for taking up with said gorgeous girlfriend.

If Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2000 for "Dinner with Friends," really wants theatergoers to value his "The Country House" characters, he needs to make them just a tad more than skin deep. Thus, Robert Kelley's valiant directing attempt to bring this regional premiere to his company's audiences is commendable, made even more so by fast pacing and good casting, but still the play itself is somewhat ordinary.

King
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Kimberly King as Anna Patterson in "The Country House."

Of course, those who know all things — and all plays — by Anton Chekov will gladly flock to see this production because of the myriad illusions to "The Seagull," "Uncle Vanya" and more (oh, my!), both of which were also set in country homes. But it's not in the least bit necessary to be a Chekov devotee to understand and appreciate what is going on in this dispirited, sometimes pathetic, family dynamic.

There is first — and always foremost — the matriarch: Venerable theatrical actress Anna Patterson (Kimberly King in a somewhat fluctuating performance). Anna is returning to her longtime Williamstown, Massachusetts, country home to perform in summer stock at the local theater festival — the first time she's been there since the tragic loss of her daughter, Kathy, a beautiful actress, to cancer. King brings considerable assuredness and studied artificiality to her role, theatrically gushing over her granddaughter (Kathy's daughter) Susie (a steady, no-nonsense interpretation by Hallett) and flirting shamelessly with Michael Astor (a solid Jason Kuykendall) a former co-star who's also doing summer stock nearby. Michael, of course, is far younger, still quite handsome, with a well-chiseled body.

Naturally she invites him to spend a few days at her home — much to the chagrin of Susie, whose mother actually had an affair with him, and she herself has been "in love" with him since she was a little girl.

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But it's just too pat that so many people in this tragicomedy have history with each other. Case in point: When Susie's dad Walter (a wry, humorous portrayal by Martinez) shows up with his stunning new girlfriend Nell (Pizzo), how convenient that Nell and Anna's alcohol-addicted, down-on-his-luck son, Elliot (Muterspaugh) had a "thing" 11 years back when they were doing a play together. For Elliot, Nell is the love of his life and he's crazy wild that he let her get away, while Nell remembers their time together as just a close friendship.

Elliot has always been the forgotten sibling (his sister Kathy, whom he adored, was "everything I wasn't," he acknowledges). No longer young, he has been an out-of-work actor for a long time, sometimes even dropping his famous mother's name in hopes that it will give him an in. Now he spends his days working on a (terrible) first play, but is hapless and hopeless, with a hangdog look and nothing to do but head to the liquor cabinet. As Elliot himself acknowledges, "It's exhausting being me."

But it's when he reads his play to everyone staying at the house that things turn ugly. Anna believes the mother in the play is a "childish attempt to get back at me," and familial patter goes downhill from there. Muterspaugh's Elliot is by far the most complex (and attention-grabbing) character in the play, though it is sometimes difficult to watch him flail about miserably for most of Act 2.

There are funny lines and a few humorous scenes to counterbalance the nastiness. The best is when the electricity goes out in the middle of a summer storm. Everyone goes to bed including the briefs-wearing Michael, who's been sleeping on the living room sofa for several nights. He's first visited by Susie (the granddaughter), whom he quickly dissuades from making any sexual advances, then by Susie's grandmother Anna, who floats downstairs in an alluring negligee with a thinly veiled excuse of bringing Michael a fluffier pillow — only to be gently rebuffed, and, recovering quickly, grabbing the pillow and quickly ascending the stairway.

One more nighttime visitor arrives: Nell, who is confident that her love for the sweet, gentle Walter is not fatherly (despite their age difference), yet she, too, has a brief thought about a midnight romp with Michael.

Martinez, Pizzo
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Gary S. Martinez as Walter Keegan, left, and Marcia Pizzo as his fiance Nell McNally in "The Country House."

One nit is that both the body language as well as the looks between Martinez and Hallett make it hard to imagine they ever had any feelings for each other as father and daughter. Yes, they certainly are estranged now that he has brought in another woman to take her mother's place. But a lifetime of being together in what Margulies implies was a happy family should mean that occasionally the unforgiving Susie recalls her father's loving role in her life.

TheatreWorks' version of Margulies' play has all the trappings of a special event: Andrea Bechert's cozy country chic setting with blue-and-white plaid furniture, family photos galore and a sizeable number of theater costume posters (reminders of Anna's fabled past) plus a see-through outdoor setting of lush, green trees in a lavender-tinged mist; B. Modern's frothy (for Anna), sporty (for Nell) and appropriate costumes for all; and Stephen B. Mannshardt's usual good lighting.

Brendon Aanes provides mostly understandable sound, but at times Anna's voice trails off or is too faint when she turns away from the audience.

Yet this crazy quilt of a story somehow feels forced and kludged together rather than something that flows naturally. It's not Margulies' best work by far, and most of the actors deserve better. Fortunately, they're so good, they even make the material seem more substantial than it is.

Email Joanne Engelhardt at joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

Kuykendall, Hallett
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Jason Kuykendall as Michael Astor, left, with Rosie Hallett as Susie Keegan, who just can't believe the mustache, in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's regional premiere of "The Country House" by Donald Margulies, playing through September 20, 2015, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Hallett, Muterspaugh, King, Kuykendall, Pizz, Martinez
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Rosie Hallett as Susie Keegan, Stephen Muterspaugh as Elliot Cooper, Kimberly King as Anna Patterson, Jason Kuykendall as Michael Astor, Marcia Pizzo as Nell McNally and Gary S. Martinez as Walter Keegan read through Elliot's new play in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's regional premiere of "The Country House" by Donald Margulies, playing through September 20, 2015, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.


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