Theater archives

Weakened in the Country


Both Douglas Carter Beane’s The Country Club and Brian Friel’s Give Me Your Answer, Do! are more about a place than an event; in both the characters have gathered to retreat from the cares of the everyday world, but they bring the world with them, and the results don’t leave anyone feeling very happy. In Beane’s play, which spans a year, the place is the “cub room” of a country club in western Pennsylvania, where the now adult children of the local WASP gentry cluster to escape both their parents and the townsfolk; each scene is set on a different holiday, for which the club provides the same party with different decorations. Friel’s play spans one interminable holiday afternoon, at an isolated manse near a marsh in Donegal, where a seven-years-blocked Irish novelist and his wife are entertaining her parents, along with a more successful rival novelist and his wife, and the highly neurotic appraiser who is deciding whether or not to purchase the host’s papers for a wealthy Texas university library.

A place not being a source of drama per se, nothing dramatic can really happen in either play, unless you think that it’s dramatic to watch people who’ve known each other for years have the same bittersweet encounters yet again. Both writers accordingly try to create a factitious suspense where none exists. Beane opts for a familiar tale about genteel adultery. This has, at least, the charm of familiarity, which his writing and Christopher Ashley’s cast bolster with a considerable array of other charms. Friel, in contrast, has tried to carpenter some suspense out of whether the rich Texans will or won’t buy the hero’s archive (in tandem with whether the appraiser will or won’t have another nervous breakdown), but nobody cares whether some fictional Irish hack’s scribblings end up in Texas, Rhode Island, or the nearest fireplace.

The Country Club‘s focal figure is Susan, or Soos, as her friends call her. (The WASP characters all have typically twee nicknames: Froggy, Pooker, Zip, Hutch, and Bri.) Back home after the failure of her marriage in California, Soos drifts all too easily back into the circle of her high school chums who have never even tried to break away. They too are adrift. Family money and connections guarantee that nobody will ever starve, but this security offers no satisfaction, only a gnawing sense of being sheltered from reality. Hutch, the rowdiest of the bunch, tries to cut loose by marrying Chloe, a pretty and passionate girl from the wrong set— Italian American parvenu— but this doesn’t help once his best buddy Zip elects to fall madly in love with her. Even that hardly ripples the placid waters: Chloe, fraught with Catholic guilt, has already broken off the affair by the time Hutch pulls himself together and takes her off on a second honeymoon. Soos, who knows that Zip has been a chronic betrayer since high school— she was the first victim— finds herself left with him, for better or worse, at the end.

Though predictable as narrative, this circular tale gets a fresh feel from Beane’s breezy telling of it. The talk sounds convincingly like an actual small-city elite— slightly passé and never quite achieving the epigrammatic tone they aim for; it’s thrown only slightly askew by Beane’s periodic urge to point the moral. Smartly, Ashley’s smooth, uninsistent staging doesn’t lean on these moments, but lets the country-club kids press on their inane way. Swept along by their giddy humor— the show opens with a huge burst of Amy Sedaris, as the frenetic party-planner Froggy— you’re too involved to object by the time you realize that, dramaturgically speaking, you’re being hauled down the same old road that Hollywood weepers trudged for four decades. Ashley’s actors, happily, are too distinctive in their charm for old-movie memories to get in their way. Cynthia Nixon’s Soos, best of the lot, is the full-grown performance we’ve been waiting for her to give, simultaneously poised and pained, bravely cheerful yet seemingly on the verge of coming apart. Nearly as good are Callie Thorne and Frederick Weller, as Chloe and her hapless husband. The mixture of lust, guilt, confusion, pride, and envy that Thorne’s eyes register is better than most light shows. And Weller’s become what I call a program actor, meaning that he’s so different in every part, you have to check your program to realize you’re watching the diffident romantic from last year’s Plunge, or the dumbly obstinate nephew of Curtains. Amy Hohn is strong and incisive as the group’s self-appointed referee, and Peter Benson, in largely mute anguish, makes a droll foil for Sedaris’s motor-mouthing.

ââ The country-house party of ill-matched couples in Friel’s Give Me Your Answer, Do! is not, as its title might suggest, bicycling in the 1890s. In a prologue, we learn the reason for the novelist host’s seven years’ blockage, and for his wife’s incipient alcoholism: Their daughter is a catatonic in a nearby institution. Novelist visits, wife can’t bear to. This unsecret sadness hangs over their unmixable guests, to each of whom Friel assigns a counterbalancing private grief, as if he were composing a Baroque sculpture rather than a play: The wife’s mother, a sturdy doctor, is on the verge of physical collapse after years of supporting and rescuing her simple-souled kleptomaniac husband; the appraiser has his shaky mental history (worn on his sleeve, in Michael Emerson’s heavily “indicated” performance); the noisily competitive colleague and his spouse are trapped in wealth and mutual loathing. These people don’t make up a social unit, and can’t really affect each other in any but arbitrary ways. One by one, schematically, each misery is revealed and everyone’s duly shamed. Then the hero either does or doesn’t sell his archive and the others go home.

Friel’s script occasionally drops hints that he thinks he’s creating an Irish equivalent of Chekhov, but where his Russian model was terse and pointillistic, Friel’s lines are labored, and lumpy with explanation. Instead of linking into one vast picture, his events simply repeat one another, sluggishly. Nor does he ever give any reason why we should care about this particular novelist’s dry spell, except for his phony colleague’s praise, which has no credibility— especially not as rendered by Gawn Grainger, in the ham equivalent of italic bold 38-point Gothic.

Grainger’s performance may suffer partly from Kyle Donnelly’s direction, which seems to have divided the cast: Lois Smith, as the doctor, is gray and ineffectual, while the normally fine Kate Burton, as her daughter, tends to wave her arms and look helplessly up at the balcony. In contrast, John Glover as the hero, shoulders clenched and mouth set in an unhappy semi-smile, is the most convincing novelist I’ve ever seen onstage; Helen Carey, as his rival’s long-suffering wife, uses means as meager as Smith’s to make a portrait infinitely more vivid. And Joel Grey, as the klepto father-in-law, builds to the shattering effect Friel calls for with sheer demure simplicity.