If you’re going to crib, crib from the best. Sharr White, the talented young playwright whose superlative The Other Place played on Broadway last winter, returns to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre with the ambitious and deliberately Chekhovian drama The Snow Geese. In addition to its title, the drama has a bucolic setting (a family hunting lodge in upstate New York), a once aristocratic family now in financial straits, and even a pistol that is ominously introduced in the first act.
Unlike Christopher Durang, who played with Chekhovian tropes in his Tony-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, White is interested in a more serious homage — and he mostly succeeds in uprooting Chekhov’s themes to an American setting at a time (1917, at the outset of World War I) that offers a safe remove from both the 19th-century Russian’s era and our own.
Mary-Louise Parker plays a proto-version of Weeds’ Nancy Botwin: a recent widow, Elizabeth, with a mountain of debt and two almost-grown sons. Instead of marijuana sales, she retreats to the happy fantasy that the borrowed-upon good times can keep on rolling. Self-obsessed golden boy Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) has been insulated from the family’s financial slide, sent off to Exeter and Princeton in the hope he might make good on the veneer of American aristocracy they’ve tried to project. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Arnold (Brian Cross), is an earnest realist who takes it upon himself to investigate the family’s finances — and is horrified to discover how over-leveraged they really are. How will they support themselves, let alone Elizabeth’s sister, Clarissa (the fine Victoria Clark), and her husband, Max (Danny Burstein), a German-born physician who has lost his practice in Syracuse because of anti-German prejudice?
White sets the conflicts in motion with fine craftsmanship, but the second act shows a few more seams. It’s well-structured, but a bit too schematic — in a way that mimics John Lee Beatty’s evocative set, which moves like a Swiss Army knife to slide rooms and settings into place just so. One troublesome spot is the confrontation between the two brothers where Max’s pistol surfaces a second time, a twist that seems both too coincidental and insufficiently justified. Cross’ Arnold can also seem a bit too modern for 1917, whether shouting at his elders or dismissing the war as a “bloody s—-show.”
Despite these infelicities, The Snow Geese makes you care about this flawed and fractious clan. Credit goes to Daniel Sullivan’s fluid direction and to Parker, who here manages to seem both radiant and ravaged. With her husband’s death still fresh and her eldest soon off to the battlefield, she projects a grief that shows no signs of dissipation. B+