Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner in "The Country House"
Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner in "The Country House"
© Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael Lamont

The Country House, LA

The world premiere of this comedy of manners takes pains to remind you of its Chekhovian inspiration, with often less-than-inspired results.

By Donald Margulies

Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles

By special arrangement with Manhattan Theatre Club

June 3 – July 13, 2014

The program for “The Country House” digs its pointy elbow into your ribs to ensure you get “it” — the parallels, that is, between this Donald Margulies play and Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” and “The Cherry Orchard.”

Well, maybe. I’m not, to be honest, well-versed in the Russian writer’s work, and the two or three of his plays that I’ve seen over the years have not left me with indelible memories. Truth be told, I found more parallels between “The Country House” and any number of “Seinfeld” episodes — not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.

The setting is a magnificent century-old house in Williamstown, Mass. (take a bow, scenic designer John Lee Beatty), and it’s the summer home of the esteemed actor, Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner). She’s there prepping herself for the lead in the upcoming Shavian play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” and to mark the one-year anniversary of the death (to cancer) of her much-loved, also theatrically talented daughter, Kathy.

Joining her are:

  • 20-ish Susie Keegen (Sarah Steele), the late Kathy’s daughter and Anna’s granddaughter;
  • Walter Keegen (David Rasche), Kathy’s ex-husband, Susie’s father and Anna’s former son-in-law;
  • Nell McNally (Emily Swallow), Walter’s new fiancée;
  • Elliot Cooper (Eric Lange), Kathy’s brother, Anna’s disappointing son, Susie’s uncle, Nell’s coulda-been lover years ago and long-time pain in Walter’s ass; and
  • Michael Astor (Scott Foley), a young, handsome and well-known actor who’s been invited to crash in Anna’s home while his own pad is being fumigated.

Still with me?

Things unravel quickly. Susie, a Yale undergraduate, is the wind filling the play’s sails with her gimlet eye and her sly, sardonic wit; like a little girl with a hat pin in a balloon store, she punctures everyone else’s pretensions. She’s more than a little peeved at her father for taking up with Nell so soon after her mother’s death.

Walter has made a name — and a small fortune — for himself cranking out a string of moronic, masturbatory films for adolescent boys. Cynical he may be as a filmmaker, but he clearly loves Nell and counts himself lucky to have found her.

For her part, Nell is a drop-dead, super-gorgeous super-model who finds emotional contentment with the older Walter. She’s as surprised to discover Elliot living there in Anna’s home as he is to discover her with Walter. Whatever happened with Elliot long ago, she refuses to resuscitate it.

Elliot, overlooked when Anna was giving both birth and acting genes to Kathy and him, feels decidedly unloved and frustrated; he’s given up hopes of an acting career and now aspires to be a writer. The unexpected appearance of Nell has re-ignited his passion for her — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Michael, a star in TV soaps and on the stage, is the male equivalent to Nell and, in a funny bit during a storm-caused blackout, tickles the libidos of Susie, Nell and Anna — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

That leaves Anna — as in “out.” Other than a maudlin little scene at the very end, she whooshes on and whooshes off the stage to little effect. Given Danner’s long prominence on stage and in film, you’d think Margulies would have found more substantive work for her. But no. Now there’s something wrong with that.

Margulies studs the play with many clever, LOL lines that played well with the obvious show-biz crowd in attendance the night I was there. And under Dan Sullivan’s direction, the players juiced each with the timing of an atomic clock — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

George Alexander