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Review: The Rep's 'Country House' lacks insight into characters, situations

| Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
justin merriman trib total media
Cary Anne Spear, Marie Elena O’Brien, Paul Anthony Reynolds, Christopher Josephs in a scene from The Country House

The first rule for those who create plays or fiction of any kind is: “Write about what you know.”

So it's easy to understand Donald Margulies' decision to write about a group of actors, writers and directors brought together for a memorial service in a Berkshire country house near the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

During his long career as a playwright that includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends” and “Time Stands Still,” he has almost certainly met and/or worked with every one of the character types he created for “The Country House,” which opened the 2015-16 season at The Rep on Sept. 5.

Three of his plays also were produced at the Williamstown Playhouse, allowing him to pepper the text with local references.

Playwrights frequently tap the world of theater for their material with great success — Michael Frayn's “Noises Off,” Noel Coward's “Hay Fever” and George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's “The Royal Family” are but three examples.

But familiarity also comes with negative attributes.

“The Country House” offers little that's new, insightful or surprising in its characters and situations. Much of what happens feels like a pastiche of scenes glued together after a long weekend of watching the Hallmark Channel.

The premise of the play is that this extended family of theater, television and film artists gathers at the family home in Williamstown, Mass., for a memorial on the one-year anniversary of the death of their mother/sister/wife/daughter, Kathy.

But the memorial gets sidetracked as other agendas, grudges, ambitions and complications take precedence.

Anna, the family's matriarch and an aging star, has impulsively invited Michael Astor, a successful television actor now returning as a big-name star to the Williamstown Theatre stage where he apprenticed with Anna.

The widowed Walter, who is directing the wildly successful big-effects film sequel “Truck Stop 4,” has brought along his new girlfriend, Nell, an actress who once had a brief relationship with Kathy's brother, Elliott, a perennially unemployed actor who is writing his first play.

Walter's daughter, Susie, the only one not in theater, is not happy about her dad's new relationship.

Everyone gets an opportunity to do a predictable but dramatic aria about some aspect of the contemporary theater world, whether it's Walter's justification for making profitable, but intellectually barren, movies, Michael's self-serving narrative about building houses in Africa or Anna's lament on being an aging actress.

What's interesting is that everyone seems so self-aware that you spend a lot of time wondering if their characters are acting for themselves and each other or over-reaching for the audience.

The production goes awkwardly over the top in an emotional confrontation between Cary Anne Spear's Anna and Elliott, her hapless, self-pitying son, played by David Cabot.

Don't get me wrong.

There also are some lovely moments, such as the quiet conversation that Maggie Carr's Susie and Spear's Anna have about their lingering grief over Kathy's passing.

There also are an abundance of very witty, articulate musings about the miseries and joys of a career in the theater and one spectacularly funny scene where Paul Anthony Reynolds' Michael is sequentially approached by each of the three women.

While it is by no means one of the “essential pieces of theater” that The Rep prides itself on producing, it is solidly supported by a creative team that includes director John Amplas, scenic designer Michael Thomas Essad, costume designer Joan Markert and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski.

The Rep's production of “The Country House” continues through Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays in the Rauh Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. Admission: $24-$30. Details: 412-392-8000 or pittsburghplayhouse.com

Alice T. Carter is theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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