IS there a wittier writer working today than Donald Margulies? Could be, but the New Haven-based, Pulitzer-winning playwright is so consistently on in his best work, and his brand-new play, The Country House, which I caught on opening night at the Geffen Playhouse, is often irresistibly funny.
The play is set in a big, open house occupied, for this weekend, by two generations of actors, including a television star asserting his serious-theater credentials by appearing at the Williamstown Theater Festival. (Blythe Danner plays the family matriarch.)
My friend and colleague Charles McNulty, whose take on the play resembles mine pretty closely, picked up numerous echoes of Chekhov, including individual characters who have precursors in works like The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.
If it can’t compete with these dramatic masterpieces, well, nothing written in the last 100 years can. Chekhov’s supple artistry — at once invisible and palpably present — is so inextricably tied to his fearless yet humane worldview that copying his example would be as impossible as counterfeiting fingerprints.
There’s a good deal of fun in the attempt, however, especially in the first half when the play is in flamboyant comic mode. (The move to more serious psychological drama late in the second half comes off as ponderous.) Chekhov’s characters are adept at laughing through tears. Margulies’ are most memorable when cracking wise about the theater.
Here are a few of my own observations:
It is hard to imagine the cast being improved: Everyone seemed dead-on to me.
As strong and delightful as this play is, it could probably benefit from losing 10 or 20 minutes, and I agree with McNulty that the final act doesn’t work as well.
The Geffen Playhouse, where I’d not been in a few years, is one of the few things worth the long rush-house slog to the Westside. Opening night there really feels like an event. Excitement about the new Margulies play was palpable.
Despite the parallels to Chekhov, you don’t have to have memorized The Cherry Orchard to enjoy The Country House. The new play lacks the sense of sweep and understated poignancy you get in Chekhov.
Many of Margulies plays are about artists of various kinds, and the writers are always egomaniacs, the actors are shallow and manipulative, and so on. He is in some ways a satirist. But I spent a few hours with the playwright — who recently finished adapting a film about David Foster Wallace — and he’s not cynic. We went to the Orange County Museum of Art for a Diebenkorn show, and Margulies was rapt. His plays work, I think, because he has a complex — both reverential and demystified — sense of the creative process and the people who engage in it.
The Country House will head to Broadway. See it now in LA while you can.