Monday, May 19, 2008
The Country Girl
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****
On paper, I should have loved the Broadway revival of Clifford Odets' 1950 play The Country Girl. The cast sounded terrific, it's just the kind of backstage story that appeals to me, and it's directed by Mike Nichols, who also directed The Graduate, one of my all-time favorite movies.
Well, I don't know what happened, but this was a disappointment.
First, I was straining a bit to hear some of the dialogue from my seat in the front row of the mezzanine at the Jacobs Theatre. I'm not sure how big a deal to make of this. My theatergoing companions said that they could hear fine. But I talked to some other people as we were standing in line to use the ladies room at intermission, and they also said that they had trouble hearing, especially when the actors weren't directly facing the audience.
Also, when you get three actors like Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher together in a play you expect, well, something to sizzle - you expect to get the caliber of performances that you'll always remember. Even the show's Web site touts its "three extraordinary stars." Well, I saw The Country Girl a little over a week ago and frankly, not a lot of it stuck with me. There were a few moments, but overall, it just never caught fire for me.
Freeman plays a washed-up, alcoholic actor named Frank Elgin whose best days are long behind him. McDormand is his long-suffering wife, Georgie, who is packing her suitcase and on the verge of leaving him. And Gallagher is Bernie Dodd, the driven, energetic director who remembers Elgin from the days when he was good, and wants to cast him in a new play that's trying out in Boston with the aim of making it to Broadway.
Of the three, Gallagher made the biggest impression on me. He truly believes that he can bring out the magic in Frank. He's desperately trying to keep him sober and keep the play on track. At the same time, he's fending off producer Phil Cook (Chip Zien), who would replace Frank in an instant. There are some good moments between McDormand and Gallagher, as they argue over who truly knows what's best for Frank. Dodd can't quite figure out whether Georgie is a help or a hindrance to his efforts. At one point, he tells her, "You ride that man like a broom."
McDormand does give Georgie a sense of toughness and weariness. She's a realist - she's been through so many ups and downs with Frank over the years and knows his strengths and weaknesses all too well. There's no sentimentality left. She knows he's helpless and a drunk and tells Bernie at one point that her husband is "incapable of the truth." Despite Bernie's accusations that she's hurting her husband, she knows him better than anyone else.
But as for McDormand and Freeman together, I never really felt that there was any chemistry between them. This is a couple that's been through a lot over many years - the collapse of a career, the death of a child. Maybe the passion simply went out of their relationship a long time ago. I guess they've stayed together because Frank desperately needs Georgie, and she knows that he'd be lost without her.
And Freeman is almost too mild-mannered, too low key. He does a good job of portraying Frank's insecurity, someone who's confidence is shaky, as much as he tries to hide it. Frank obviously knows what's at stake here - he's been given a second chance at stardom. But I never really saw a hint in him of the great actor that he once was, the spark that would make Gallagher's Bernie Dodd risk so much to take a chance on him.
Things do pick up in Act II, when you have the escalating clashes between Bernie and Georgie, exacerbated by the breakup of Bernie's own marriage and the bitterness he feels toward his ex-wife. There's the tension that comes from not knowing whether Frank will stay sober, whether he'll make it to opening night on Broadway.
It's hard to explain, but I didn't feel the same strong personalities come through during The Country Girl the way I did last spring, when I saw Kevin Spacey and Eve Best in A Moon for the Misbegotten. It wasn't a horrible experience by any means, it just left me feeling kind of blah when I expected to be riveted. The performances were compelling at times, but the actors never really answered the question that to me is so crucial whenever the curtain goes up: Why should I care about these people?