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'The Country House' review: Banter in the Berkshires

Daniel Sunjata and Blythe Danner in a scene

Daniel Sunjata and Blythe Danner in a scene from Donald Margulies' "The Country House" at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

It is easy to understand why playwrights, especially those fascinated by the layers of human relationships, are drawn to the work of Anton Chekhov.

So it feels especially right that Donald Margulies would be magnetized by the prisms of light and dark in the Russian master's late 19th century plays, the comedy on the edge of tragedy and the characters who break our heart while we laugh at their folly.

Except for the fine cast led by the formidably elegant Blythe Danner, however, there is little else that feels right enough about "The Country House." Margulies, author of the Pulitzer-winning "Dinner With Friends" and other engrossing tales of educated contemporaries, is straining here to update Chekhov's "The Seagull" to a summer house full of theater people at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

The result is a surprisingly lightweight comedy-drama in which characters go on about all the cliches we know about the plight of a gorgeous aging actress (Danner), her son-in-law, a middle-aged director (David Rasche) who went Hollywood to do schlock action movies, the handsome talent (Daniel Sunjata) with mixed emotions about his hit TV series, and the sad-sack failed loser son (Eric Lange) desperately trying to write plays and make his famous mother love him.

Staged with his customary lucidity by Margulies' longtime director Daniel Sullivan, "Country House" sets up an unlikely but promising situation, then almost slavishly follows the Chekhov outline until the characters are hollowed out by illogical motivations.

Of course, it is always a pleasure to watch Danner have her way with a big character, even such a familiar one as the shrewd, tempestuous, increasingly insecure theatrical diva. She is Anna Patterson, matriarch of the family that has returned to the enviable Berkshire house (designed by John Lee Beatty) for the first time since her beloved daughter, a gifted actress, died there of cancer the previous summer. Instead of the quiet, reflective week expected by her bright, nonartistic granddaughter (Sarah Steele), the widowed son-in-law has brought his new young girlfriend (Kate Jennings Grant, cruelly costumed) and Anna has invited the celebrity TV hunk to sleep over. The banter is hackneyed and, ultimately, the crises are pointless. Worse, these people are dull.

WHAT "The Country House"

WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

INFO Tickets $67-$125; 212-239-6200

BOTTOM LINE Fine cast stuck in Chekhovian theatrical cliché.

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