Watching the new play “The Country House” in Albuquerque last week, I kept thinking about Hillary Clinton’s response to a woman’s question about her life. Clinton quoted a friend as telling her: “I’ve loved and been loved, and the rest is background music.”
I thought about this sentence because the comedy at the Cell Theater in downtown Albuquerque depicts a group of uncommonly successful people who fail and flail at love.
There is a grandmother, Anna (Laurie Thomas), who is one of the great actresses of the stage; her son-in-law Walter (Paul Blott), who is a wealthy Hollywood producer of TV schlock; the son-in-law’s irresistibly beautiful trophy fiancée Nell (Jacqueline Reid); the granddaughter Susie (Rhiannon Frazier), who is an all-A college student; and a handsome and famous movie star, Michael (Ross Kelly).
The sixth character, Elliot (Bruce Holmes), stands out for his differences. He is overweight and unkempt, with an untrimmed beard and a wild head of shoulder-length hair, a 40-year-old man in the body of a resentful and morose adolescent. Yet he commands the play and the stage, the cynosure of cast and audience alike. He fails at everything except drawing attention to himself.
His relationships with the other characters are the most intense and his verbal (and even physical) fireworks the most blistering during the two hours that the sextet scream and laugh—sometimes with but more often at each other, for there is more cruelty and resentment than love and kindness in this family affair in the country house.
“How did I become this sad excuse for a man?” Elliot asks in the second act, adding, “All my life I’ve been the only nobody in the room.” Although you feel his self-diagnosis is acute, you still want to cry for Elliot.
If Anton Chekov didn’t patent this kind of drama—members of a family closeted in a remote house only to be disrupted and revealed by the intervention of outsiders—the 19th-century Russian playwright certainly perfected it, to the point that it still propels even our regional theater here in New Mexico. No greater proof is needed than “The Country House,” which the Fusion company opened with exceptional éclat last week.
While this two-year old Broadway comedy by Donald Margulies (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Dinner with Friends”) is an updated mash-up of the plots of two classic Chekhov dramas, “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya,” you don’t have to be familiar with these plays to relish the current Fusion production.
The story of “The Country House” is both simple and complex. The simple part is that four members of a prominent theatrical family are gathered in a home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts when two outsiders join them. The awkward combination becomes first funny, then tense and finally incendiary before resolving into something positive and even a bit hopeful.
The complex part is that these six people are deeply implicated in each other’s lives in more ways than even they are aware of, and in ways that have altered and distorted their entire existence.
Much of the success of the performance is due to Holmes. He charges the play with a level of emotion and tension that commands the audience’s attention. His deeply felt passions, hatred and frustrations drive the other characters. They are constantly responding to his bitter ironies and self-lacerating pathos. We despise this man and love him. We want no part of him and see ourselves in him. It is a good role, but it is a magnificent performance.
The youthful Frazier should receive special attention for her skillful and believable portrayal of the granddaughter who has her own subtle and highly ambivalent relations with each of the other characters. Performing in her first Fusion role, she is a UNM graduate who toured with a theater group in China.
From the play’s opening word, “Daaahling,” Thomas is a suitably gracious, poised yet artificial grandmother who is still young enough to star on stage and try her hand at seduction.
A kind of foil for her is Reid, who renders the interloping Nell as a kind of brainy bimbo—not an easy feat.
Blott’s Walter remains something of a cliché, a sexagenarian who still wants to run and have sex like a young man, and almost manages to pull it off.
Michael is a potentially interesting character who never quite develops on the stage. A matinée idol who wants to do good in Africa, he is conflicted about his star status but still willing to exploit it when it suits his purposes.
Despite the play’s grand antecedents and the playwright’s imposing credentials, the comedy has problems with both plot and dialogue—New York reviews ranged from mixed to negative. Five of the six characters remain superficial, failing to engage the audience’s deep empathy, and their verbal dexterity can sometimes seem slick and artificial.
There are just too many back stories, too many old triangles, too much past and ongoing love, flirtation and sex, in a word, too much story.
You could argue that a great play does most of the director’s and actors’ work for them, but a mediocre play is a true and hard test. Making it a success requires discipline, skill, hard work and talent. These are what director Gil Lazier, production stage manger Maria Lee Schmidt and this able cast bring to the “Country House.” The result is an exceptionally fine evening’s entertainment.
“The Country House” will continue through April 29 at the Cell, 700 1st St. NW in downtown Albuquerque with performances Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The final performance April 30 is pay-what-you-will at 7 p.m. at the KiMo Theater, 421 Central NW in downtown Albuquerque. For tickets and information go to fusionnm.org or call 505-766-9412.