One good play by Pulitzer Prize-winning Donald Margulies deserves another.
Road Less Traveled Productions seems to think so. The company opened the 2016-17 Buffalo stage season with his acclaimed “Dinner with Friends” and now closes with the more recent “The Country House,” a story of an acting family at home - fractious, egos- in-residence, rancor rampant - any chance to kick back and chill out quickly dashed.
“The Country House” bowed on Broadway in 2014. This is its WNY premiere.
Playwright Margulies himself has admitted that “The Country House” is not an adaptation but rather a homage to the Russian master storyteller Anton Chekhov and his classics: “Uncle Vanya,” The Seagull,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Three Sisters” and even some of his earlier works such as “The New Country House” or “The Steppe.”
The scene is Massachusetts, The Berkshires, Williamstown, home to a famed summer theater festival, its alums numbering acting icons like Olympia Dukakis, Edward Herrmann and Blythe Danner - Buffalo’s late doyenne, Rosalind Cramer, was a company member for at least two summers, in yet another Margulies play, “God of Vengeance” - and it’s where fictional veteran, aging actress Anna Patterson keeps a place; she’s living there while in rehearsal for George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”
In a version of “Uncle Vanya,” a professor’s wife, Elena, tired of alienation and bickering among the residents, announces: “Things are not right in this house!” Our Anna learns this when she arrives home from rehearsal to find granddaughter Susie; along with son Elliot, an out-of-work actor, unkempt and, we soon learn, a failed playwright. (Sound familiar? Think Konstantin’s bomb of a script in “The Seagull.”)
Susie’s father, Walter, who, suffering brain cramp, has brought along his new girlfriend, Nell; a young, handsome actor named Michael Astor arrives, invited by Anna. So, it’s crowded. Missing is Anna’s daughter, Katie, dead a year, and it is the anniversary of her passing. She’s missed and mourned. Tears come easily. Dirty looks at Walter and Nell.
Things are not right in this house. Like so many other houses in the Chekhov canon, there are secrets, fears, longings, jealousies, an air of dispiritedness that you can cut with a knife. We learn that Anna knew Michael some years ago - she a star, he smitten - and wouldn’t you know that Eliot and Nell once had a near-relationship as cast members in Louisville. Young Susie, well, she has had the hots for Michael since she was a teenager.
So, on a dark and stormy night, there are lascivious thoughts aplenty - even Anna has a few - some awkward situations and some mismatches, the country house, rich in make-believe and pretend, suddenly becomes an explosive place. No weekend getaway here.
“The Country House” is directed for RLTP by Scott Behrend and - despite its sit-com demeanor, endless talk and generally unlikeable characters - it’s wonderfully done, some of WNY’s finest actors doing their finest work. Playwright Margulies bares histories in little conversations and small combinations of guests and live-ins; great moments.
The regal diva, Barbara Link LaRou, too long absent, returns and reigns as Anna. She is certainly not “a leading lady without a stage,” as Anna says; LaRou is still a marvel.
Joining her in this stellar ensemble are Renee Landrigan, as Susie; Chris Kelly, as Michael; Kristen Tripp Kelley, as Nell; Peter Palmisano, as Walter; and Christian Brandjes, boozed and brilliant as Eliot, so troubled and at the center of all the mishaps - some violent - painful disclosures and discussions that occur in a place that normally promises refuge and harmony - a country house. Homage to Anton Chekhov complete.
Behrend’s direction is sage and seamless; and kudos to the RLTP technical designers.
"The Country House"
3.5 stars (out of four)
Drama/comedy at Road Less Traveled Productions,” 500 Pearl St., through May 21.
Tickets are $35 general admission, $20 students.
Call 629-3069 or go online at roadlesstraveledproductions.org