It makes sense that Donald Margulies would choose Los Angeles to premiere his new play The Country House, which runs through July 13 at the Geffen Playhouse before a Broadway bow this fall at Manhattan Theatre Club. The meta-comedy is full of humor and astute observations on a central question of life in Hollywood: the nature of art vs. celebrity and what it really means to want to be recognized by someone else.
The setting is straight out of a Chekhov: a weekend in the country with a family of actors. What could possibly go wrong except for everything? Like Chekhov's Uncle Vanya or The Seagull, The Country House relies less on circumstance than on character. Blythe Danner plays Anna Patterson, an award-winning actress of stage and screen who returns to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires for a production of Mrs. Warren's Profession. Sharing her home are her depressed, would-be playwright son, Elliot (Eric Lange); her granddaughter, Susie (Sarah Steele – a standout as the one character in her family who doesn't want to stand out); Susie’s father, Walter (David Rasche), a film director and widower of a year; and Walter's beautiful and younger girlfriend, Nell (Emily Swallow).
The latter's arrival – around the one-year anniversary of the death of Walter's wife (and Anna's daughter) from cancer – meets with disapproval from both Susie and Elliot, who was once in love with Nell when they did a play together in Louisville. (Did I mention that virtually everyone's an actor?) To raise the level of complications, there’s another houseguest: a TV star (Scandal's Scott Foley) rehearsing another play at the festival, who intrigues Nell in part because she realizes that his fame is a huge aphrodisiac.
Early on, the cast seems to be playing a slightly exaggerated version of themselves—Foley's character, for instance, has just wrapped the third season of an extraterrestrial medical drama (Scandal ended its third season in April). In the overlong second act, though, Margulies stops mocking gluten allergies and Fast and the Furious-like film franchises and struggles for deeper meanings. He also gets bogged down in clichéd moments (a thunderstorm and blackout).
Still, Foley has an impressive stage presence, bringing humor to his role without a hint of irony. And Danner embraces the contradictions of her role as a woman who’s made a career out of playing other women but seems unprepared for the role she was born to play: herself. B+(Tickets: geffenplayhouse.com or 310-208-5454)