THE BASICS: THE COUNTRY HOUSE, a play by Pulitzer prize-winning Donald Margulies, directed by Scott Behrend, starring Christian Brandjes, Chris Kelly, Renee Landrigan, Barbara Link Larou, Peter Palmisano, and Kristen Tripp-Kelley opened April 28th and runs through May 31st, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 at Road Less Traveled Theater, 500 Pearl Street, 2nd floor. No public performance May 6. Wheelchair accessible, but please contact the theater 24 hours in advance (716) 629-3069 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The lobby bar (serving beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages and snacks) opens 30 minutes prior to performance. Beverages permitted in the theater in covered cups only. (716) www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org. The play runs a little over two hours with one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: We are in the Berkshires near the Williamstown summer Theater Festival in the country house of an aging Broadway star, Anna Patterson, who has returned “home” for the first time since her beloved (by everyone) daughter, Kathy, died of cancer. We meet Kathy’s college-age daughter Susie Keegan and Susie’s father, Walter, but he has arrived in a Porsche convertible with his gorgeous new girlfriend, Nell McNally, who previously had a relationship with Anna’s son, the unhappy playwright Elliot Cooper. Not enough sit-com for you? Let’s stir things up with the arrival of star of stage and screen Michael Astor and his magnetic attraction to women of all ages. While Act I is more of a sit-com, Act II is more dramatic.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: With all three elements in place – great play, great direction, great actors – this production continues the tradition of quality, make that very high quality, at Road Less Traveled. Let’s start with the play, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Donald Margulies (this season’s RLTP “American Theatre Master”) whose DINNER WITH FRIENDS, a drama about two middle aged couples whose mid-life is out of control, opened the season. Margulies can write content-rich dialog for adults (as good as, but not as pretentious as the dialog in, say, Aaron Sorkin’s WEST WING) that just oozes sub-text (a la CHEKHOV) while keeping the audience laughing. Margulies’ specialty, it seems, is introducing a ticking emotional time-bomb whom people notice, and comment on, and react to in a normal, everyday manner, without anyone (including the time bomb him or herself) fully realizing until the end just how big the problem is.
An analogy might be a homeowner who notices sagging gutters, a crack in the basement wall, doors not opening quite right, as friends and neighbors offer helpful suggestions (you ought to get a ladder and fix that, you ought to call a carpenter, have you thought about drain tiles) only to find that the entire house is built on a sink-hole and is about to be destroyed. It’s that “helpful suggestions” part where Margulies’ creates such realistic dialog.
Now, on to direction. This is RLTP Artistic & Executive Director Scott Behrend’s home theater, so who better to know the ins and outs of the physical space? And, in 2014, Behrend worked as Assistant Director alongside playwright Margulies and director Dan Sullivan on the world-premiere of THE COUNTRY HOUSE at the internationally-famous Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (a production starring Blythe Danner). That’s a nice little tidbit on the old resumé.
Speaking of the physical space, the set design (Dyan Burlingame), light design (John Rickus) and sound design (Eric Burlingame) combine for a first-class, Shaw-Festival-worthy (my highest accolade) experience.
As to the actors, it’s uncool to gush, so I won’t (much) but what a cast.
As to the actors, it’s uncool to gush, so I won’t (much) but what a cast. Barbara Link Larou as the doyenne Anna Patterson (“There are no Broadway stars anymore. Yes, there are stars on Broadway, but they’re not Broadway Stars”) has the voice, the looks, and the acting chops to completely inhabit the role, which is nuanced. In this play she’s the mother of a dead daughter, the mother of a troubled son, the grandmother of Susie, but she’s also her own woman. In our culture where older women are defined by their relationships with others, not who they are, that was refreshing to see.
‘I hate actors,’ says Susie. ‘You do not hate actors,’ her grandmother Anna responds. ‘Your whole family is actors.’ Susie: ‘Exactly.’
Chris Kelly as Michael Astor and Kristen Tripp Kelley as Nelly McNally, two characters whose good looks, charm, and sex appeal trigger much of the action, were both last seen together in THE SEEDBED at Irish Classical, and their chemistry on stage continues to be very natural.
Peter Palmisano and Renee Landrigan never seem to be out of work, were both recently on stage at the Kavinoky in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, and they seemed very much at home in their roles, too.
And how nice to see Christian Brandjes again, last seen as the uptight sheriff in LOUISIANA BACCHAE at Red Thread. His role as the disturbed Elliot Cooper (son of Anna, uncle of Susie, brother of the late Kathy) has him taking the greatest journey of development, a long, inexorable descent, and he carries it very well.
Others have pointed out the parallels to Anton Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL as well as UNCLE VANYA. Yes, they are there, and I mention it because if I don’t somebody else will, and if knowing that encourages you to see the play, that’s good. Personally, it would discourage me from attending. I find the plays of Chekhov rather depressing because I don’t see any way out for his characters. With Margulies, there is a hint of a hopeful future.
WHAT’S NEXT: On May 6th, Road Less Traveled Productions will welcome its 2017 American Theatre Master, Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright Donald Margulies, to Buffalo. The day will begin with a free-to-the-public Q&A session at 2:00 p.m. with Mr. Margulies, moderated by the RLTP Literary Director Jon Elston, at the Road Less Traveled Theater, 500 Pearl Street, in an “Actors Studio” style.
Past RLTP American Theatre Masters have included actors, dirctors, and playwrights including Edward Albee, Eric Bogosian, A.R. Gurney, and Stephen Adly Guirgis. Seating for the May 6th 2:00 p.m. Q&A session with Donald Margulies is limited. To reserve a seat, call (716) 629-3069 or email at email@example.com.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!