Monday, April 28, 2008

How Well Did Critics Believe Country Girl Has Matured?

How Well Did Critics Believe Country Girl Has Matured?

Yesterday, the second Broadway revival of Clifford Odets' The Country Girl opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

The Mike Nichols-helmed production starring Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher has been tabloid fodder thanks in no small part to Michael Riedel's now infamous columns on the supposed problems ranging from deviations from the original script to Freeman's "struggling with his lines." However, despite his third column on the topic -- this time predicting an onslaught of negative reviews -- most critiques came up favorable, with two notable exceptions.

Heralding the revival as “wonderfully on the side of the angels,” New York Post’s Clive Barnes salutes with three and a half stars: “It is crisply and, so far as humanly possible, unsentimentally directed by Mike Nichols, who knows how to let his actors breathe, react and interact, and has a handsomely picked trio of stars in Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher…. These three are all heart-rendingly credible -- it's among the finest acting of the season - and transcend the simplistic writing to leap into the reality at which Odets surely, and sometimes not so surely, aimed.”

Assessing the work as “surprisingly durable thanks in part to its flavorful evocation of the theater milieu,” Variety’s David Rooney offers praise: “[I]n Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher, Nichols finds three intelligent collaborators capable of investing those characters with their own distinctive shadings…. While the play's psychology belongs to an era before addictive personalities and parasitic relationships were regularly placed under an unforgiving dramatic microscope, its depiction of co-dependency retains veracity and complexity…. Nichols and the actors respect the exacting rhythms of Odets' writing, constructing these conflicted characterizations nuance by nuance, and frequently risking unsympathetic bluntness before whipping away veils to show a larger, more humanistic picture.”

Calling The Country Girl “a subtle, engrossing and deeply straightforward shaping of a far-from-perfect script,” Linda Winer of Newsday is largely positive: “Nichols has directed a carefully-calibrated three-star turn, with Frances McDormand as Georgie, the disappointed wife of Frank Elgin, whose career disappeared in a bottle and a bluff. The third side of the triangle is the terrific Peter Gallagher, the most aptly cast of them all, playing the workaholic hotshot director as if channeling Jerry Orbach's dark New York way with a fast-talking dream…. Nichols keeps picking away at these people until, quietly, the relationships click into the complex ways we perceive one another and ourselves.”

Deeming this a “well-mannered mounting,” The New York Sun’s Eric Grode is also decidedly upbeat: “The occasional hesitations and reversals at a recent press performance by Mr. Freeman (and by his co-star, the fellow Oscar winner Frances McDormand) came to feel less like nerve-racking scrambles and more like the gambits of a magician who piques the interest of his audience by inserting intentional flubs in anticipation of a final cathartic ‘ta-daaaa!’… But The Country Girl" is, in addition to a three-pronged drama about the codependencies of marriage as well as of artistic collaboration, a love letter to the art of stage acting…. The stars on display may flicker now and then, but they cast a strangely compelling -- and equally mysterious -- light on the counterintuitive and wistful energies that create art.”

Noting that “passion -- and I don’t mean just a mechanically raised voice or fist -- never makes an appearance here,” Ben Brantley of The New York Times : “[W]hat keeps you vaguely but uncomfortably on tenterhooks is wondering whether three of the finest actors around can make you care, for a single second, about any of these questions before the play ends. Sorry to jump to the last page, folks, but the answer is no…. Each star has a few abrupt moments of simulating anger or sorrow via sharp, attention-grabbing technique. But I rarely felt prepared for these explosions; they seemed like unanchored, virtuosic exercises. And while Mr. Gallagher and Ms. McDormand bring a brisk surface energy to the proceedings, the overriding note of this production is fatigue…”

Concluding “By the time the curtain falls, you've already stopped caring,” Joe Dziemianowicz of New York’s Daily News also bemoans the “lackluster revival”: “Freeman is a talented actor but isn't fully convincing in this role. He captures Frank's insecurity, but his slack diction undermines his credibility as a once-great star hiding vast reserves of ‘power and majesty.’ As his beleaguered spouse, McDormand looks tired, that's for sure. But her performance is flat and lacks spontaneity. She and Freeman have little chemistry, so it's hard to buy them as a couple who have endured so much, including their child's death. The surprising and rock-solid turn comes from Gallagher, who brings enthusiasm and energy to his scenes, ingredients the show sorely needs.”

I'll be seeing the production next week and will weigh in shortly thereafter with my own SOB Review. Of course, the reviews may not matter at all given the major starpower of this limited run.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Country Girl Hits Big Apple (April 27, 2008)
Looking Forward: The SOB Top Five (January 2, 2008)
Country Girl To Return To Big City (September 28, 2008)

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