Saturday, September 12, 2015

"The Country House" -Mildly Entertaining but Flimsy

Now at the Pittsburgh Playhouse
I’m never one to shoot the messenger, no matter the content of their missive. The messenger in this particular instance is the commendable cast of "The Country House," a serio-comedy by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Donald Margulies, now getting its Pittsburgh premiere at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
More comedy than serio, the play is set in the beautiful Berkshires of western Massachusetts, home to cultural watering holes like Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and the Williamstown Theater Festival. Margulies, who didn’t win the Pulitzer for "The Country House" and now I see why, taps into his own extensive familiarity with the area (he’s been thrice produced at the Williamstown Fest) and makes it the setting for his troupe of characters, a family of thespians made up of both stars and wannabees.
Obviously acquainted with the public’s fascination with celebrity, Margulies gets a jump start by peopling his cast of characters with artsy folk headed by the Patterson family matriarch, Anna, a Broadway diva resplendently played by Cary Anne Spear.
Squeezing every savory line with the aplomb and panache worthy a celebrated starlet, Patterson sets the tone for the rest of her grieving family, meeting at their country house for a memorial to her departed actress daughter, Kathy who succumbed to cancer a year earlier.
But this is not a family cut out for long bouts of lugubrious reminiscences, although there are plenty of references to the departed loved one. For these folks, the show must go and does it ever. One by one, they spill onto the stage, starting with the pert and sarcastic granddaughter, Susie, played by a youthful Maggie Carr with the swagger of acting experience seemingly beyond her years.
Next comes Michael (Paul Anthony Reynolds), a wildly successful television actor with a hit series on his hands and an old theatrical confrere of Anna’s. In Williamstown to perform at the festival, he’s invited to spend "a few days" when Anna learns that his apartment has been fumigated  and temporarily uninhabitable.
Anna’s son, Elliot (David Cabot) is the odd man out in this family of successes. Peeved by his own lackluster career in theater, he’s the one character who adds a bit of  grudging negativity to the electric circuitry sparking the interplay of relationships.
Adding a bit of awkwardness to overall camaraderie is the arrival of Ann’s widowed son-in-law, Walter, himself a flourishing film director whose made it big doing sequels of "Truck Stop," an explosion and crash series geared to an audience of adolescents. On his hip is new girl toy, Nell (Marie Elena O’Brien), a beautiful woman and aspiring actress who’s half his age but seemingly enraptured by his charisma.
Surprisingly, this potentially explosive mix of personalities gets along quite well, at least initially. While there are some delightful comic moments like the night Michael is visited bedside by all three women sequentially or the scene in which the house guests perform a reading of Elliot’s new play and give him a some unflattering critical feedback, much of Margulies’ dialogue is formulaic and annoyingly non-inventive.
Even more disconcerting is the abrupt change of mood when Anna and Elliot stir up old resentments and grudges. Their mother-and-son interplay comes on like an ill-fitting, out-of-style suit worn by someone at a formal affair and stands out as startlingly inopportune and inappropriate considering the billowy buoyancy that precedes it.
Mildly entertaining, "The Country House" is magnificently recreated by set designer Michael Thomas Essad  and  serves as a lovely springboard for this sextet of commendable actors directed by John Amplas. Unfortunately, neither cast nor crew are given the enough in the way of a script to turn this house into a home worth remembering.
"The Country House" is at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue in Oakland, through September 20. Phone 412-392-8000 or visit website

The Cast of "The Country House Photo Credit: Justin Merriman

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