Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Country Girl (The SOB Review)

The Country Girl (The SOB Review) - Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York, NY

** (out of ****)

For all the pre-opening fuss about flubbed lines, it's more than just a little ironic, if not downright disconcerting, to discover that's exactly what Clifford Odet's The Country Girl is really all about.

And while I never detected any mispoken dialogue from Morgan Freeman as alcoholic actor Frank Elgin, his muffled voice is all too often imperceptible. In fact, this undeniably gifted Academy Award-winning favorite frequently sounds as though he's mumbling.

Method acting? Perhaps, but when Frank's lines are so intrinsic to this backstage story, it is truly a shame we can hardly make out what he's saying in his desperate gambit to reach the pinnacle of Broadway fame one more time after practically losing it all because of his bout with the bottle.

Among his continuing potential losses is his long-suffering wife Georgie (a sadly miscast Frances McDormand), whom he calls by her eponymous moniker -- whether affectionately or derisively is never really clear. Early in Act One, with bags nearly packed, Georgie's willful resoluteness in escaping her nightmarish existence is trumped when Broadway director Bernie Dodd (an effective Peter Gallagher) offers Frank a dream come true: a major comeback role. Bernie enlists her aid in making sure Frank stays on the wagon and learns his lines while the play is being tried out in New England.

Not only does Georgie go with Frank to the out of town tryout, but she acts as his biggest protector against the two primary forces that could plunge her husband headlong back into the alcoholic abyss: Bernie and the show's producer Phil Cook, portrayed by an exceptional Chip Zien, who singlehandedly transports us back to the fifties.

In maintaining the 1950s milieu, director Mike Nichols imbues this production with an utterly dissembling, anachronistic feel. Sure, the scenic and costume designs by Tim Hatley and Albert Wolsky, respectively, evoke the fifties, but the actors themselves seem like they're from another time. McDormand, in particular, comes across as far too sophisticated and self-assured for a woman who's not only supposed to be from farm country, but also from the middle of the 20th Century.

The more perplexing issue is just how much direction Nichols actually offered. It's as if he's directing several different shows at once, with each of his major stars serving as the center of their own unique solar system. Yes, they're all powerful in their own right, but rarely during the rather inert first act do their stars collide in a way that would make an astronomer sit up and take notice. Instead, these actors are left orbiting around one another, missing opportunities to display what this revival sorely lacks -- passion and chemistry.

Fortunately, all is not lost as the second act provides unexpected twists, which at least place the three principals in the same general trajectory. And make no mistake, at its root, Odets has provided a pretty compelling story that practically begs for the assembled star wattage to shine brightly.

For one brief, triumphant moment near The Country Girl's climax, they finally twinkle with all the brilliance you'd have every right to expect throughout.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:

How Well Did Critics Believe Country Girl Has Matured? (April 28, 2008)
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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At 22 May, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

First of all, congratulations on posting the final review of your 2007-2008 Broadway season. You've truly seen it all this year!

I was disappointed with "The Country Girl" for many of the same reasons, including the lack of passion and chemistry, the difficulty in hearing some of the dialogue. I think I'll rent the movie, just to see whether I like it any better.

When people asked me before my last trip to New York what I was going to see, there was this spark of recognition when I told them who was in "The Country Girl." But one thing I've learned is, big stars don't always guarantee a brilliant evening at the theatre.

At 22 May, 2008, Blogger Dale said...

I was really excited to see Frances and the gang and wondered how it was that the most enjoyable part of the show were the people talking behind me. "I love that business with the curtain" one old dolly chirped. Great to see the stars but I was quite disappointed as well. I thought Peter Gallagher seemed about the best cast in the thing.

At 22 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

As I noted upon entering the New Year, The Country Girl was one of the five shows I was most excited about.

The thought of seeing both Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand - two of my favorite actors - sharing the same stage truly excited me (I had seen the latter when The Sisters Rosenzweig played at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre years before she was a bona fide star).

But seeing them together was a genuine disappointment. I agree that Peter Gallagher was by far the best of the three.


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