Many years ago, writing in a different newspaper about a different production, I called Clifford Odets' "The Country Girl" a "good-bad play."
It's bad because while craftsmanlike and efficient, it's also shamelessly manipulative, melodramatic, obvious and sweet. And it's good for just about the same reasons.
The balance between that enjoyably good and that disastrously bad depends almost entirely on the staging and the performances. The production that opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre is wonderfully on the side of the angels.
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.
Odets' 1950 play - even with revisions by Jon Robin Baitz - has a whiff of the Fifties about it, together with suggestions of the film script (starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and William Holden) it was destined to become four years later.
Yet Odets, here towards the end of a rocky career, was impressively - at times, perhaps, disastrously - professional. He knew what they wanted, even if, judging from his memoirs and letters, he wasn't quite sure who "they" were.
Here the whole play is set up in a perfect arc. Ten minutes into it you can guess not only how it is going to end, but even how it is going to get to that ending.
Of course you can say the same about "Death of a Salesman." But no one would, would they?
The proposition of "The Country Girl" is simple - a hotshot youngish director, Bernie Dodd (Gallagher), wants to take a chance on a once much-esteemed actor, Frank Elgin (Freeman), long laid low by the death of a beloved daughter, by bad investments and, although now apparently clean, by booze and the lingering reputation booze brings.
Can Frank make a comeback, can he even learn his lines, can he stay off the demon bottle? And behind all this lies Georgie (McDormand), Frank's actually supportive wife, very ambiguously viewed by Bernie.
Of all the versions, stage and screen, the one that hit me the hardest was the 1952 London premiere - the text was adapted and even the title was changed to "Winter Journey" - with Michael Redgrave, Sam Wanamaker, who also directed, and Googie Withers. It was all tear-down-the-scenery-and-light-a-bonfire marvelous.
Nichols and his team are less incendiary in intent, but the subtlety makes the melodrama more appealing and, possibly, more convincing. And the performances are superb.
Among the admirable supporting actors, I was especially taken with Remy Auberjonois as Paul Unger, the amiably unflappable playwright, but really there are only three roles that count.
Freeman, who in previews apparently was having difficulties, here seems in full command of the text. He gets every ounce of burnt-out passion from Frank, with the shadowing self-doubts and fears of a shakily recovering alcoholic needing all the help he can get for redemption, while persuasively substituting a childish truculence for the mad anger once offered by Redgrave.
Gallagher's Bernie is also more realistically toned down than most, carefully calculating that odd conflict of feelings he has for Georgie, and here the great McDormand, at her finest, delivers a portrayal of shattering quietness and nuanced subtlety.
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.
A single breath of suspense, as faint as a half-stifled sigh, occasionally stirs the inert revival of Clifford Odets’s “Country Girl,” which opened on Sunday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. This anxiety does not arise from the fraught plot-propelling questions posed in this backstage drama from 1950: Will the washed-up actor stay off the sauce long enough to make his comeback? Will his wife leave him if he does (or if he doesn’t)? Will the play they’re all working so darn hard on make it to Broadway?
Instead what 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.
How could this be? “The Country Girl” is headlined by three stars known for the intensity of their presence and the integrity of their acting: Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher. Its director, Mike Nichols, picks up Tonys the way cashmere picks up lint.
Sure, the play reads like a relic, but so do two other shows from the same period, “Come Back, Little Sheba” and “South Pacific,” which both opened on Broadway this season with cobweb-clearing vitality. And “The Country Girl” is about people who love the theater so much it hurts, which is presumably also true of this production’s illustrious participants. Why else would well-paid screen stars return to the dusty boards?
Yet passion — and I don’t mean just a mechanically raised voice or fist — never makes an appearance here. It’s a law of theatrical physics that electricity is generated onstage only when a connection is made: between actors and audience, yes, but first of all among the actors themselves. And for whatever reason, everyone in “The Country Girl” seems to be operating on his or her own isolating frequency.
As befits a play about theatrical birth pains, “The Country Girl” arrives swathed in reports of a torturous delivery. It was said in The New York Post and echoed in chat rooms that Mr. Freeman, playing the alcoholic actor Frank Elgin, was having trouble remembering his lines and that Mr. Nichols, assisted by the playwright Jon Robin Baitz, was merrily rewriting Odets.
But if Mr. Freeman was still unsure of his lines, it was undetectable in the performance I saw, which exuded a low-key confidence and charm. (This is not, I hasten to point out, what the part requires at all times.) And if you compare this version’s script with Odets’s published text, the deletions and discrepancies don’t change the sense of things, though the word substitutions are often bizarrely capricious. I would happily have put up with flubbed lines if real runaway feelings accompanied them. 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, right down to the funereal tones of Tim Hatley’s backstage sets and Albert Wolsky’s costumes.
An autumnal sensibility is not inappropriate to “The Country Girl,” which is best known today for the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and William Holden. Its pivotal character, Frank, is an aging actor whose star sank long before the play begins.
Now considered unhirable because of his reputation as a lush, Frank has one steadfast fan in Bernie Dodd (Mr. Gallagher), a younger director who remembers the old guy when he was good, and risks starring him in a new Broadway-bound drama. The catch is that with Frank comes Mrs. Elgin (Ms. McDormand), known as Georgie, who is either her husband’s salvation or nemesis. Bernie suspects the latter.
“The Country Girl” has its quaint spots, and Odets’s stylized, tough-cookie language can feel ripe for parody, especially in its encomiums to theater with a capital T. But as a study in varieties of co-dependency — alcoholic, sexual and artistic — the play is well shaped, and it offers the opportunity for some teasingly layered portraiture. The real driving force of “The Country Girl” isn’t the success or failure of the play within the play but the gradual revelation of just who is using whom and why.
This aspect of psychological mystery is barely evident in Mr. Nichols’s production. It’s hard to credit the poisoned interconnectedness of people who appear to have stepped out of different genres of theater. Ms. McDormand plays the long-suffering Georgie with the mannered briskness of a wisecracking heroine from a 1930s screwball comedy. I suppose it could be argued that this is Georgie’s defense system, but I rarely glimpsed the life-flattened woman underneath.
Mr. Gallagher would seem to be trying for a more classically Odets-like figure: the hard-boiled urban guy with the manners of a thug and the heart of a poet. He brings an entertaining nervous restlessness to this archetype, and he has some funny running physical gags with cigarettes. But like Ms. McDormand he’s on a private wavelength, shared only by Lucas Caleb Rooney, in an enjoyable turn as the stage-obsessed stage manger.
In theater as in film Mr. Freeman is a quietly commanding presence. When Frank auditions for Bernie, the producer (Chip Zien) and the playwright (Remy Auberjonois) in the opening scene and begins improvising, you get a flash of the wild-card artistry that makes Bernie prize him. Otherwise he seems natural, affable, occasionally irritable, but not like a man wrestling with demons.
It suggests how little confidence this production has in its material that the scenes are separated by a perky and distracting mixed-period soundscape of radio ads and pop hits.
I had watched the film version recently and hooted at the old-style underlining of big moments (like the drunken Frank seeing his face in a mirror) with crashing symphonic chords. But as creaky as the movie seemed, Crosby, Holden and, most surprisingly, Kelly (who won an Oscar for her performance) created a poignant vision of people with the power to wound one another irrevocably. In Mr. Nichols’s production, where the performances might as well be taking place in separate sealed bubbles, there’s no danger of anybody getting hurt.
After two decades in which he was minimally represented on Broadway, Clifford Odets resurfaced two seasons ago with a superlative revival of his poetic 1935 debut "Awake and Sing!" and now with Mike Nichols' staging of "The Country Girl," written 15 years later. The two plays are worlds apart: The politics, richly populated ensemble and pinpoint sociology of the early work gave way to a more sentimental vehicle for three stars in the popular backstage melodrama. But even if the 1950 play is a lesser achievement, the dramatist's singing idiomatic speech and his affecting insights into the erosion of the human spirit still make for enthralling theater.
There may be no comparison in thematic reach between the two plays, but "The Country Girl" remains surprisingly durable thanks in part to its flavorful evocation of the theater milieu, but chiefly to its trio of meaty lead roles, all colored by compelling ambiguities and craggy edges. And in Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher, Nichols finds three intelligent collaborators capable of investing those characters with their own distinctive shadings.
Contrary to the title, the play's center is Frank Elgin (Freeman), a once-formidable actor whose gifts have been squandered in alcoholism and self-pity. He gets the opportunity for artistic redemption when hotshot young director Bernie Dodd (Gallagher), who remembers Frank's glorious past, takes a chance on him in the lead role of a Broadway-bound play trying out in Boston. With self-destructive cunning, the high-maintenance actor tirelessly seeks ways to ensure his own failure, as his wife Georgie (McDormand) and Bernie clash in their struggle to keep him on track.
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. Beneath their frayed bonds, the hurt of Frank's deceit and Georgie's brittleness, and his shameless manipulation in setting her up to take the rap for his own weakness, the warmth between them is never in question.
Whether consciously or not, all three characters present carefully constructed personas to the world.
Frank's genial, easygoing air masks his passive-aggressive insecurity and inescapable despair, his loss of faith in his will battling a prideful belief in his talent. By contrast, Bernie's self-confidence seems unshakable, yet his vaunted, bitter experience with a drunken father and a difficult ex-wife has given him a surprisingly dim understanding of both alcoholics and women. Georgie's appearance of embittered self-abnegation hides a well of long-suffering loyalty.
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. In a production for which the negative word about detached direction and tentative performances has been emanating loudly through previews, it may be that the gradual coalescence of character evident in the writing was echoed in the staging process.
Gallagher's crackling performance is the most immediately captivating, full of in-period detail and brash physicality, with an expert balance of suspicious animosity and growing sexual tension in his contest with Georgie.
Freeman plays both with and against his innate strength, composure and dignity. His towering presence is reined in at first, as Frank appears bruised and intimidated when called upon to audition. But his transformation while unleashing his improvisational skills with Bernie is bracing, instantly standing taller as he validates the director's hunch about his ability to bring something vital and unpredictable to the role. Freeman then swings like a pendulum between authority and pathetic frailty in a magnetic turn that never soft-pedals the character's dishonesty.
Georgie is the most complicated character, and while McDormand initially seems mannered and distancing, there's a thoughtfulness evident in her performance that lends increasing poignancy to her sacrifice. While the unconventional casting of an African-American actor as Frank goes without comment, McDormand's natural toughness adds credibility to her steadfastness in a mixed marriage in the 1950s.
As the title suggests, Georgie dismisses herself as a simple country girl, lacking in the sophistication of the theater world. "I haven't felt like a woman in 10 years," she says matter-of-factly. But much as she behaves like someone prematurely aged, rendered abrasive by wary defensiveness, she's unable to suffocate the smart, stylish, cultured woman that lies just beneath the scrappy surface. When Georgie ponders the possibility of another life either alone or with someone like Bernie, McDormand is quietly moving, allowing a new softness to emerge as she regards freshly confident Frank: "You're handsome tonight."
Yet right up to the beautifully composed final image of Georgie alone during opening night in New York, there's a lovely, melancholy note in her awareness that her choice means a future of continuing uncertainty. (Jon Robin Baitz has made minor revisions to the text, including removal of a half-baked exit strategy for Georgie in the final scene; elsewhere, changes are mainly limited to substitution of occasional obsolete terms like "courtesan" with "hooker.")
While this is very much a three-character piece, Remy Auberjonois as the principled playwright and Chip Zien as the nervous, irascible producer make sharp impressions, sharing a firm handle on Odets' colorful vernacular with the leads.
Punctuating the scene changes with slow curtains that underscore the drama's inhabitation of a theatrical world, Tim Hatley's sets are both detailed and unfussy, from the gloomy brick walls of an undressed New York stage to the yellowed, peeling wallpaper of a shabby apartment or the transient residence of a dressing room, all choked with cigarette smoke. Albert Wolsky's costumes could stand some naturalistic rumples but do the job nonetheless, as does Natasha Katz's unadorned lighting.
However, it's the performances and not the production that are key to elevating "The Country Girl" above its essence of quality soap, and on that count, Nichols and his cast deliver.