Chekhov’s soul goes missing in ‘Country House’

Parodies and adaptations of, and homages to, turn-of-the-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov abound, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies (“Dinner with Friends”) counts his recent Broadway play, “The Country House” — now in a Northern California premiere at TheatreWorks — among the latter.

The Country House” is set, Chekhovian style, in, yes, a country house: a Williamstown manor in which members of a theater family gather during summer stock season.

Matriarch Anna (a deliciously flamboyant and multi-layered Kimberly King) is memorizing lines for her appearance in the title role of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”; she’s all too aware that she’s aging and her star is fast fading.

Her unemployed (and apparently unemployable) actor son, Elliot (Stephen Muterspaugh), has suddenly decided to become a playwright. In a particularly funny and painful scene, he coerces his family into reading his predictably awful script aloud.

Elliot’s sister, Kathy, died a year ago and her absence is deeply felt.

Which is why everyone’s disconcerted when Kathy’s husband, successful, 66-year-old Hollywood director Walter (a convincing Gary S. Martinez), shows up with a much younger fiancée, the beautiful and ambitious actress Nell (an engaging and nuanced turn by Marcia Pizzo).

Especially disconcerted is Kathy and Walter’s bratty daughter, Susie (Rosie Hallett); written rather formulaically by Margulies, Susie seems more 13 than the college student she is.

Also upset is the hapless and continually overwrought Elliot, who long ago was unrequitedly enamoured of Nell.

Another surprise guest is youngish, charismatic TV star Michael (a relaxed and appealing Jason Kuykendall), an old theater colleague of Anna’s; back in the day, when she was in her prime, he had a crush on her.

If it all sounds slightly familiar, characters and elements of plot are borrowed from “The Seagull” and ‘Uncle Vanya,” and that’s not a bad thing.

Still, some of the writing feels contrived: basic relationships and circumstances too overtly announced in the opening scene; hackneyed devices to propel the plot (a blackout during a thunderstorm provides opportunity for the inevitable attempts at trysts); a rote argument between Elliot and Walter about the nobility of the theatrical art form vs. selling out to Hollywood.

Certainly “The Country House” has its poignant and gently comic moments, finessed by director Robert Kelley, but Margulies paints his characters with a broad brush. What’s missing is that Chekhovian soulfulness, which is best captured here by the inimitable King’s wry, pitch-perfect portrayal of Anna.


The Country House
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 20
Tickets: $19 to $80
Contact: (650) 463-1960,