John Lee Beatty's 62nd set for Manhattan Theatre Club is The Country House, which opened Oct. 3 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre—a comfortably countrified House Beautiful that looks like just the spot where actors retreat from the NYC hurly-burly.
As written by Donald Margulies, directed by Daniel Sullivan and ruled by Blythe Danner, it's a cozy little nest—not without thorny domestic issues, to be sure—in the manageable wilds of Williamstown. Danner is a grande dame granny, the matriarch of the manor, a stage actress-turned-movie star-returned-stage actress, and her current role is to host a wake of sorts on the first-year anniversary of her daughter's death.
To grandmother's house they go: the new widower (David Rasche) escorting, tackily, his new fiancée (Kate Jennings Grant) and a TV hunk who'd been a lover of the deceased—as well as Marchbanks to Danner's Candida (Daniel Sunjata). He sleeps on the living-room couch—if every female on the premises will let him.
Counting the deceased's miscreant brother (Eric Lange), that makes four actors under one rustic roof—five if you include the spirit of the dear departed—plus a director and an undetermined—the testy granddaughter (Sarah Steele), who is not at all taken by the silly antics of her elders, sorta serving as the in-house Polonius. The clanging of egos is deafening at times, but the talk always shimmers with wit and winks. Lange, who came out of nowhere to replace the original actor in the play's premiere gig at The Geffen Playhouse in L.A., runs away with the first act with barbs that cut their targets off at the knees. In the more dramatic second act, he digs deeper and colors in "the nobody in the room." It's an impressive Broadway debut.
So, too, is the Steele-plated teen who is made to look older than she is by the actions of those around her. Margulies populated the play with theatrically beautiful people but shrewdly saved his best and brightest lines for the unfairest of them all.
"I do not define myself as a comic writer, although my plays are funny," the playwright said later at the after-party held at the Hard Rock Café. "It's my characters who are funny. I'm not terribly funny, and I sure can't tell a joke."
Margulies can certainly write a play though, and, if this comes as a lighthearted change of pace for him, that's what it is. "The Country House was a commission for the Manhattan Theatre Club, a commission that came right on the heels of Time Stands Still. If you remember that, it was a contemporary play about the world of photojournalists and dealt with unspeakable atrocities—sadly, it's a play that's very current—but the impetus for writing this was that I just wanted to write something closer to home. I didn't want to have to immerse myself in the weightiness it took to write Time Stands Still, so I decided to write about theatre people. I love actors!"
The feeling is more than mutual, to hear Danner's "back at ya." It's a star role when a girl could use a star role, she admitted. "I don't think I've ever had such a wonderful role, certainly not at my age. I'm so grateful for this I feel blessed to have gotten it."
At one point, someone refers to Danner's actress character as a Broadway star, and she half-heartedly demurs, "There are no Broadway stars, darling—not any more. There are stars on Broadway, but they are not Broadway stars." In point of fact, Danner was an active actor and Tony winner in the era her character was alluding to when Julie Harris, Geraldine Page and others were Broadway constants.
Danner is being understudied by Delphi Harrington (absolutely no kin to Eve).
Lange's loser character gains both in length and strength as the play progresses, eventually earning audience sympathy and even some degree of identification when he starts echoing Konstantin's desperate behavior in The Seagull, writing a play designed to get the attention (maybe even the love) of his actress-mother. "I like that he is universal in that way," the actor admitted. "I think all of us, deep down, want to be loved, want to be made visible, want to be appreciated. If not presently, there's a time in all of our lives we haven't had that. Little boy wants his mommy, on a variety of levels. And I love how protected and bitter he is, but underneath it you get to see both sides of the coin. He's just a terrific character."
Rasche, who plays the director who marries into this acting dynasty, was impressed by tight ensemble-playing inspired by Margulies' script and Sullivan's staging. "A group consciousness descends on stage," he said. "This group of people is so highly blocked emotionally that everybody knows what everybody's doing. Everybody's constantly aware. To watch Donald and Daniel work is fascinating. They have a great relationship, admire each other so much. Daniel Sullivan is relentlessly positive."
In the play, Rasche enters limping (from a hiking mishap) and maintains that limp with conspicuous consistency. No accident: "I talked to three people who had knee replacements and they told me what it was like, so I just kinda worked with that."
Grant, as Rasche's fiancée, and Sunjata, as the television actor guiltily earning some stage cred via The Guardsman, are the two new cast members, both playing family outsiders and both engaging the interest of three members of the opposite sex. Whew!
"Michael's much more sympathetic than he was when we first started the process of rehearsing," Sunjata said. "We went through a work-personal process where Donald and Daniel and the actors were trying to fine-tune and fix some of the aspects of the play that were a little problematic in the previous production of it in California. One of the problems was that the character of Michael Astor came off as a cad, a guy who was on the make as opposed to a guy who was searching for some meaning in life. A lot of rewriting was done for my character. I think he has become a much more sympathetic character, maybe not the character that the people in the audience will necessarily identify with because he still kinda represents that magic-being who lives a different life than most of us."
Grant, who has past, present and future affairs on the premises, agreed that her character was a tricky tightrope walk. "She's an actress, and she's a woman — that tells you all you need to know right there," she offered as an explanation.
"It's a dream role. I remember reading the script on an airplane and thinking, 'Gosh, this is an amazing woman and an amazing part.' You get to go through a whole journey, you get to make decisions, and you get to love people. That's all you want." Danner had her sizable family dynasty wrapped snugly around on opening night — and that included her Oscar-winning movie-star daughter, Gwyenth Paltrow.
Tracie Thoms has started rehearsing David Auburn's two-character Lost Lake, which will raise the curtain at MTC's City Center outpost. Director Sullivan will be pulling the curtain for this one, too. The other character is played by John Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for 2011's "Winter Bone" in his New York stage debut. "John's a genius," she gushed. "I learn so much from him every day. He's one of those artists who is incapable of not being honest. He has to be honest at all times."
Cassie Beck, who starts rehearsing next week to fill MTC's smaller stage at City Center with the premiere of Sharyn Rothstein's By the Water, is a Danner devotee: "It's so great to see Blythe live on stage. I met her at Williamstown when I was doing Three Sisters there for Michael Greif years ago. She came to our dress rehearsal, watched the whole thing and was so gracious, made a point to walk up to every single actor and tell them, 'Break a leg' and 'Hello.' She's a Williamstown legend."
Other first-nighters: Jennifer Westfeldt, Zachary Quinto, director Marc Bruni, Samuel D. Hunter, Michele Lee and Fred Rappaport, Jeremy Shamos (who did terrific work at the Friedman in The Assembled Parties), playwright Sharr White (who has also worked the Friedman via The Snow Geese), Ryan Duncan, Jamie deRoy, Charlotte Maier, Jeanie Hackett, Erin Richards ("Gotham"), Margaret Colin and Gideon Glick.
The Country House, Starring Blythe Danner, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and Cast Party
Back from their honeymoon and beaming, were Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka. Four months ago, Harris was Tony's choice for Best Actor in a Musical. Now he's directing cabaret acts — this one stars his new husband. Check it out Nov. 25-26 at 54 Below. Harris said there's a chance Burtka may sing his big showstopper from Bernadette Peters' Gypsy, "All I Need Is the Girl." Perhaps they'll tinker a little with the title. Talk about "Gone Girl"!