I spent some time this week at the Geffen Playhouse seeing two much-talked about premieres. I’d been invited by the theater to see both shows — the first starring Orson Bean in marvelous form as a wise old professor in Steven Drukman’s twisty Death Of The Author and the world premiere of Donald Margulies’ Broadway-bound play The Country House, with a cast headed by Blythe Danner and including David Rasche, Scandal‘s Scott Foley and Sarah Steele, one of the country’s most extraordinary young actors.
But when the New York press agents for The Country House got wind of my plans to see the show, they ordered the Geffen to disinvite me because “national press” — i.e. New York critics — weren’t supposed to be reviewing this starrily cast world premiere of a work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Dinner With Friends; The Model Apartment) until it comes to New York in the fall under the aegis of the estimable Manhattan Theatre Club. When I pointed out that while, yes, I am indeed a New York critic, but I work for Deadline Hollywood, the press agents dug in their heels and so I did what I always do in these situations: I bought a ticket. I believe producers should do everything they can get away with to protect their shows — except tell me what I can or can’t review. I work for you, not them.
Let me first acknowledge that director Daniel Sullivan’s already confident production of The Country House is a work in progress (which I’ll revisit when it comes to the MTC’s Broadway house) that will no doubt improve as the remarkable cast — which also includes Emily Swallow (The Mentalist) and Eric Lange (The Bridge) — get more comfortable with one another and their lines. Set in John Lee Beatty’s inviting country colonial home in the storied summer theater festival town of Williamstown, Mass., it concerns the family and friends of a theater grande dame (Danner); her self-pitying playwright-manqué son (Lange); the widower (Rasche) of her beautiful daughter, now dead a year from cancer; his sexy fiancee (Swallow); and his daughter (Steele), a student at Yale. Over the course of a few sumer nights, lust lurks, envy eviscerates, grudges play out and a grown son reveals unresolved mommy issues.
So then: Another mashup of Chekhov plays and themes, in this case from The Seagull and Uncle Vanya among others, with a contemporary overlay including references to the restaurant Orso, a Tesla, February in Louisville, and lines like “Shouldn’t you be out having unprotected sex with people your own age?” The odd thing about the expanding crop of Chekhov-referencing plays involving acting families is that they seem unaware of Chekhov himself. That’s one reason why Christopher Durang’s nutty comedy Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike was so brilliant: The contemporary characters knew they were caught in a Chekhovian tableau vivant. The Country House has some exceedingly funny moments, as well as poignant ones, but it could use a bit more self-awareness along those lines. Instead, it turns maudlin in an overlong Act II that offers three endings when one would do.
The other bad idea in Act II is the long absence of Steele; she imbues the stage with a febrile presence as a smart girl who uses her wits to cover the pain of losing her mother and the tiresome narcissism of the family she’s left with. Steele is the rare actor who seems so utterly comfortable in her own skin that we’re willing to take the playwright’s trip with her even when the path is still not quite clear.
Speaking of comfortable in his own skin, Bean is having a grand time in Death Of The Author, playing a college literature department chairman who long ago outgrew the post-modern jargon slinging that earned him early celebrity in academe. His protege (David Clayton Rogers) has accused a student (Austin Butler) of plagiarism for a paper that lifts quotes liberally from writers as disparate as Laurence Sterne and, if I’m not mistaken, Henry James. The mentor must pass judgment.
The play echoes David Mamet (especially his campus-set Oleanna) in the dizzying manipulation of our sympathies for the young teacher and the student. But it’s impossible to believe that someone of the old professor’s stature would consider as his most promising heir a literary scholar who doesn’t recognize Tristram Shandy, let alone know when his leg is being pulled. And the play is awkwardly staged by Bart DeLorenzo, with balky line readings and a mirrored space by Takeshi Kata that’s jarringly incongruous with the setting.
Tout Hollywood loves the Geffen — Norman Lear was at the Country House opening and Annette Bening (soon to play Cordelia opposite John Lithgow’s King Lear in Shakespeare in Central Park) was in there the night I saw Death Of The Author. Like the people on stage, the folks in the audience are probably pretty well accommodated to the “national press” — even if their agents are not.