A house collided

Country House Production 12_Kevin BerneBy Ande Jacobson

Life is theatre, and theatre is life. TheatreWorks opens its 2015/2016 season with the Northern California premiere of Donald Margulies’ Broadway hit, The Country House. The play is an homage to Chekhov’s The Seagull and Uncle Vanya with many parallels in character, setting, and subtext, modernized to current time. Margulies’ writing is witty and relatable, and it keeps the audience engaged, at times laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all.

The story is set in the glorious Williamstown country house owned by Anna Patterson (Kimberly King), a grand dame of stage and screen, who has called her family together to observe the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death from cancer. Anna’s granddaughter, Susie Keegan (Rosie Hallett), opens the house for the visit. In attendance are her uncle, Elliot Cooper (Stephen Muterspaugh); her father, Walter (Gary S. Martinez); her father’s new girlfriend, Nell McNally (Marcia Pizzo); and, unbeknownst to her, family friend and actor, Michael Astor (Jason Kuykendall). Anna tells Susie she invited Michael after running into him at the grocery store.

Susie is the only non-theatre member of the party, and she serves not only as a family member, but as a kind of interpreter for the audience. As the story develops, we learn that everyone strives for attention and admiration. Old wounds are reopened, old relationships are rehashed, and new seductions are explored as the action takes place in the living room.

Andrea Bechart’s scenic design shows exquisite detailing in furnishings, architecture, and decorations. Aided by Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting design and Brendan Aanes’ sound design, the time of day changes with the scenes, storm fronts pass through, and life moves along. A particularly nice touch is the use of musical interludes over scene changes as the audience hears “Both Sides Now” playing through Susie’s or Nell’s ear buds as time passes. The lyrics are especially poignant as they echo the story’s theme of wide-eyed aspirations receding into unrequited longing as the characters in turn admit their sorrows.

Director Robert Kelley keeps the action moving in a true ensemble piece. All of the actors have a comfortable rapport with one another, making the interactions very fluid and believable.

Susie is a little conflicted. At times, she’s the giddy schoolgirl with a crush on Michael, while at others, she’s seemingly the “adult” as she both admonishes her uncle, and tries to help him. Hallett handles this admirably, playing a very relatable character whose openness and honesty are appealing, even when Susie is occasionally a little biting.

King shows a nice flair as Anna, commanding attention as the matriarch of the family. Her entrances are appropriately overly-dramatic, and in the more tender scenes, she softens nicely. To Anna, the theatre is all. Fame and fortune, and most of all, public notice are what matter. She’s still devastated over the loss of her beautiful, and very successful daughter, and she has a nasty tendency to take that out on those around her.

Muterspaugh’s Elliot delivers several poignant jabs and laments. In one particularly revealing, and humorous, exchange with Michael, after confiding that he has written a play, he exclaims “I’m ready to give up acting…announcing that I’m ready to give up auditioning doesn’t have quite the same impact.” Elliot is the tortured, family black sheep. Never exceling to the heights needed to gain notice in his family, he’s spun out of control into a tumultuous spiral of self-destruction after losing his sister (who was also his best friend), and Muterspaugh captures this nicely, dripping with angst.

Michael is a foil. He’s a multiple love interest, and a commercially successful television actor who returns to Williamstown each summer to prove his worth as an actor of the theatre. He is also a do-gooder, traveling to a remote African village to help the underprivileged, unaware of the media’s coverage of his activities. He does it to give back, understanding that his landing a successful, though vapid, TV series was a stroke of luck, helped not by superior acting, but by his boyish good looks, and being in the right place at the right time. Kuykendall plays Michael with finesse. His boy-next-door charm is disarming, as is his character’s calm in the storm of catharsis around him.

Martinez’s Walter, though the widower of Anna’s daughter Kathy, plays as the elder statesman of B-movies. Walter and Anna are contemporaries, he the dashing and experienced director/producer to her iconic screen and stage persona. Martinez starts off a bit stiff, but it’s clear that his character is a pragmatist. He warms up as the story unfolds, some of his history coming forth along the way. Walter had been a purist in his earlier days, but he’d come to realize commercial success was more important if he wanted to live a comfortable life. His carriage is befitting a movie elder. In one powerful exchange with Elliot, he describes the theatre mentality with disdain thusly:

“The grandiosity of theatre people! Who have convinced themselves that what they do is a higher order than all other forms of make-believe! What an odd pursuit, when you stop to think about it: Grown people shouting in rooms missing a fourth wall?”

He later admits that he’s willingly caved to commercial success with his movies when he explains that there’s nothing wrong with pandering to the 15-year-old boys of his target demographic. His admission is delivered earnestly with self-deprecating humor. The only negative in Martinez’ performance is that after his character’s early Act 1 knee injury sustained while jogging with his far-too-soon-and-far-too-young girlfriend, he’s a bit inconsistent in his injury-inflected movements.

And what of Pizzo? Her Nell is the most likeable character in the piece. Nell is an actress, and she’s clearly very much in love with Walter. Pizzo plays her beautifully, as the seeming outsider to the constituency. Her sensitivity is earnest, and her character’s backstory unfolds slowly. Even when Nell missteps, she’s easily forgiven by the other characters.

While some critics from previous productions of this play admonish Margulies’ obvious callouts to Chekhov’s works, in this production, the material and performances are captivating. At times the entire ensemble bubbles beyond reality, but that only serves to deepen the importance of what they are conveying. The Country House is a very relatable, and at times, a very funny play that will delight audiences with its verve and vitality.

What: The Country House, by Donald Margulies

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View

When: Continues through 20 September 2015

See http://www.theatreworks.org/shows/1516-season/the-country-house, email boxoffice@theatreworks.org, or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photo credits: Kevin Berne)

Additional Reading:

The Country House, by Donald Margulies


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