Sharr White’s World War I-era drama, “The Snow Geese,” is a low-flying work.
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater, the play is interesting, but too diffuse to satisfy fully.
Some compensation comes from a fine-tuned cast led by Mary-Louise Parker, who’s at her signature idiosyncratic best. Likewise from the well-oiled production designed by John Lee Beatty (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Japhy Weideman (lights), and directed by Daniel Sullivan.
White’s last Broadway play, “The Other Place,” was a twisty modern mystery. He’s far away in this story, which unfolds in 1917 upstate New York. He channels Chekhov every step of the way, following people who are letting go and moving on to uncertainty.
First off, there’s the “Seagull”-like title. There’s also a once-privileged, now broke family; a loud declaration of boredom; a pistol that is both seen and fired; and a woman in black who’s mourning for her life.
She is the recently widowed Elizabeth Gaesling (Parker), an odd duck who’s trying to hold onto her family home and the memories of her late husband, Theodore (Christopher Innvar). Teddy appears to Elizabeth in saucy dreams.
Reality bites at the family’s annual shooting party at their luxe lodge. Elizabeth’s spoiled, deceptively self-assured eldest son, Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit), is being deployed overseas. His kid brother, Arnold (Brian Cross, excellent), awakens to the family’s dire economic straits.
Also fretting are Elizabeth’s sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark), her physician husband, Max (Danny Burstein), and the Ukrainian immigrant maid Viktorya (Jessica Love).
White raises lots of ideas — about parental favoritism, culture clashes and sibling rivalries. He doesn’t fully develop any of these notions. And Arnold’s 11th-hour solution to money woes should have been obvious to the whole family from the get-go.
But the play is less about action and more about developing a group portrait. Another draft could have brought things into better focus.
After her “Hedda Gabler” was unfairly savaged in 2009, Mary-Louise Parker took a few years to lick her wounds and focus on her Showtime series, “Weeds.”
Now the raven-tressed, porcelain-skinned actress is off TV and back on Broadway in “The Snow Geese.”
This being a new play, you’d think it would be tailor-made for Parker — especially since Sharr White’s previous drama, “The Other Place,” worked mostly as a vehicle for Laurie Metcalf.
But White’s new WWI-set soap opera turns out to be more of an ensemble piece — and Parker’s character, Elizabeth Gaesling, isn’t even first among equals.
Elizabeth is the widowed matriarch of a wealthy upstate family. Or rather, they used to be rich: The late Mr. Gaesling (Christopher Innvar, in a flashback) was a dreamer and a spendthrift. Now the extended Gaesling clan must come to terms with their new situation. Some of them cope better than others.
The most interesting parts of the show pit the older son, Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit), against his brother, Arnold (Brian Cross). Duncan is a vain Princeton grad who’s about to ship off to that famous social-climbing opportunity called war. His regiment “is made of the finest sons of New York,” he brags, “and I got invited to join them!”
Cross, a redhead who looks like the young Ron Howard, waltzes off with the show as the level-headed Arnie, who responds to Duncan’s self-obsessed idiocy with seething sarcasm. That Jonigkeit lacks the frivolous charm necessary for his role tilts the balance even further in Cross’ favor.
Duncan isn’t Arnie’s only challenge. Looking Goth-tastic in a black gown, Parker gives us an Elizabeth who sees herself as the victim of cosmic unfairness. This flighty woman is as heedless as the man who bankrupted them and refuses to take responsibility.
Director Daniel Sullivan smoothly handles White’s melodramatic story, which also includes Elizabeth’s religious sister, Clarissa, and her German husband, Max. The reliably wonderful Victoria Clark and Danny Burstein (doing a rather odd accent) act the hell out of tacked-on parts. You actually would like to know more about Clarissa, whose forbidding manner hides a kind spirit.
“The Snow Geese” doesn’t dig deep, but there’s something satisfying about its shamelessly old-fashioned approach: Oedipal tension! Feuding brothers! Families overwhelmed by the times! A war that will change everything!
Some of us would rather see that than the tempests in a Starbucks cup crowding so many new plays.
As a service to readers and copy editors, I feel the need to point out that “The Snow Geese” and “The Snow Goose” are not the same thing. “The Snow Geese” (plural), a new play by Sharr White that opened on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is a sentimental tale set during World War I. “The Snow Goose” (singular), a novella from the early 1940s by Paul Gallico, is a sentimental tale set during World War II.
Still confused? There are other distinctions to be made. Though skewered by critics for its high sucrose content, Gallico’s “Snow Goose,” a fable of a lonely, bitter artist and a life-giving country lass, has had susceptible readers choking up for seven decades. “The Snow Geese,” a fable of a family that isn’t as rich as it thinks it is, is unlikely to stir any emotion other than bewilderment as to how this lifeless play wound up on Broadway.
I can answer that question in two words (or three, if you don’t count hyphens): Mary-Louise Parker. She, as you may know, is the actress who charmed Broadway audiences into happy submission in “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Proof,” and went on to become a television star as the pot-peddling mother of “Weeds.”
In her first New York stage appearance since an ill-advised “Hedda Gabler” in 2009 and the more recent cancellation of “Weeds,” Ms. Parker portrays a woman in denial in “The Snow Geese.” The play is directed by Daniel Sullivan, who helped steer Ms. Parker to a well-earned Tony Award for best actress in “Proof.”
And “The Snow Geese” is written by Mr. White, whose breakthrough work was “The Other Place,” a suspenseful drama (also on Broadway at the Friedman) that won high praise for its star, Laurie Metcalf, another fine stage actress most widely known for television, as the lovelorn sister in “Roseanne.” Given these factors, you can probably do the math even if you aren’t a theater producer.
Yet though the equation is superficially the same, the numbers don’t add up here. Set in 1917, “The Snow Geese” also might have been written in 1917, by an eager and callow young playwright in thrall to the modern masters of his day. In its setting and circumstances, a past-its-prime country lodge on the eve of epochal change, “The Snow Geese” brings to mind Chekhov, as do its restless, anxious characters.
This work’s grinding plot machinery and staggered revelations — which involve bookkeeping ledgers, blurring class lines and the drug laudanum — summon the carefully assembled topical melodramas of Harley Granville-Barker. And as a portrait of people who live in pipe dreams, “The Snow Geese” invites comparison to Ibsen, whose “Wild Duck,” another play with a fondness for avian symbolism, deals trenchantly with the same theme.
Heck, I even found myself thinking, a bit anachronistically, of Shaw’s talky but great World War I country house play, “Heartbreak House” (1919), and Jean Renoir’s great (no qualifiers) pre-World War II country house movie, “Rules of the Game” (1939), and the pretty good pre-World War I country house film “The Shooting Party” (1985). So perhaps I should thank “The Snow Geese” for bringing up triggering so many fond memories.
On its own, though, Mr. White’s play remains a muddle of pastiche parts that never cohere into an original and organic whole. And the cast members — who include the excellent Broadway veterans Victoria Clark and Danny Burstein and several attractive young newcomers — fail to convince us, and perhaps even themselves, otherwise. The same might be said of Ms. Parker, whose preternaturally youthful face seems frozen in mild astonishment, as if she were surprised to find herself here.
You could argue that such an expression suits Ms. Parker’s character, Elizabeth Gaesling, a beautiful and frivolous creature who has recently lost her patrician husband (to a heart attack, not the war) and also seems doomed to lose much of her social standing. Elizabeth has gathered what’s left of her squabbling clan at the family hunting lodge outside Syracuse (a dark-wood affair, designed by John Lee Beatty) for one last morning of game shooting before her elder, golden-boy son, Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit), ships off to France with his regiment.
This forever-young matriarch (a fashion plate in period mourning clothes designed by Jane Greenwood) has another son, too, the 18-year-old Arnold (Brian Cross), though she tends to forget that he’s there. Arnold’s a sourpuss, always going on about how Daddy left them all broke, and how the family’s gentility is a sham. Also on hand are Elizabeth’s sister, the Bible-thumping Clarissa Hohmann (Ms. Clark), who is married to Max (Mr. Burstein), a brandy-tippling German-born physician whose American practice has been destroyed by xenophobia.
The late, lamented Theodore, Elizabeth’s husband, makes a guest appearance as a laudanum-and-ukulele-conjured ghost (played by Christopher Innvar), while a pretty young Ukranian maid, Viktorya Gryaznoy (Jessica Love), who has known better days herself, is there to remind the Gaeslings that things could be a lot worse.
Mr. White deploys these figures in the interests of family soap opera and larger social commentary. Angry sibling rivalry flares within both generations. And while Ms. Parker and Ms. Clark have a lovely, if fleeting, scene of sisterly solicitude in the second act, the friction between the brothers inspires some of Mr. White’s least felicitous dialogue. (Duncan of his brother: “He’s got to learn how to take a joke.” Arnold: “You’ve got to learn how to make one.”) And, in a turn no young actor should be required to take on, poor Mr. Jonigkeit is saddled with an “Uncle Vanya”-style collapse involving a gun.
Elizabeth exists in a fairly continuous state of nervous breakdown, though she rises to maternal wisdom toward the end. She is also meant to be one of those lively, madcap seductresses who embody the irresistible allure of a dying class.
As reliably delectable as Ms. Parker usually is, she is strangely stiff and uncomfortable here. Her character also suffers when compared with another, more persuasive avatar of fading lucre, the heroine played by Jessica Hecht in last season’s “Assembled Parties,” by Richard Greenberg, which, like “The Snow Geese,” was a Manhattan Theater Club production. As I said, the value of Mr. White’s evocation of things past may lie in its gift for making you think of other, better plays past.
Sharr White writes so knowingly about complicated women that one might be forgiven for assuming, as I once did, that he is a woman playwright.
Earlier this year, Laurie Metcalf toppled magnificently into the downward spiral of a brilliant neurological researcher in "The Other Place." Now "The Snow Geese" -- which, like White's earlier play, is coproduced by MCC Theater and the Manhattan Theatre Club at the latter's Friedman on Broadway -- imagines three more women characters with psychological twists and folds of unusual richness and depth.
So it isn't hard to understand why Mary-Louise Parker was drawn to Elizabeth Gaesling, the glamorous and delusional recent widow of a lively eccentric from a privileged Syracuse family. She and her two grown sons, her sister and her brother-in-law and a mysterious new Ukrainian maid are gathered for opening day of the hunting season in their gorgeous, woodsy lodge (designed by John Lee Beatty) in upstate New York. It is 1917 and not quite a safe distance from the Great War, which means that mood swings and reversals of fortune are both personal and global.
How sad, then, that the play is such a muddle. It's an interesting neo-Chekhovian muddle, mind you, and I'm not a bit sorry to have shared the time with White, 43, a late-blooming playwright whose corporate job has been supporting his family in their Hudson Valley home.
Given the rich situation and director Daniel Sullivan's darkly luscious production, however, the disappointments hurt.
Parker, whose extensive theater career includes her Tony-winning performance in Sullivan's staging of "Proof," makes a fascinating, poignant wraith -- a lost soul in silky black mourning gowns (by Jane Greenwood), just beginning to realize how much is lost. But her voice is sometimes hard to hear, especially in the wordy exposition when everyone in the family is babbling at the same time about many important plot points. Victoria Clark is exquisitely down to earth as the pious sister, while Danny Burstein has touching fury as the German-born doctor enduring wartime xenophobia.
Sibling and class rivalry burn between the pampered first son (Evan Jonigkeit) and his brother (Brian Cross), left behind to entangle financial disasters. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the maid (Jessica Love), who knows the brutality that these people, with their carefree hunting of what someone calls "the birds and the bunnies," are yet to understand. Too bad the play lets them all down.
Sharr White's The Snow Geese (* * * ½ out of four stars) begins with a family gathered around a dining table. They are chatting, as families will do, when 18-year-old Arnold, the younger of two brothers, makes an observation.
"God knows what would happen if we ever stopped talking and actually did something around here," he says.
It's initially not hard, as an audience member, to empathize with his frustration. The new play, which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is set shortly after the death of Arnold's father and the USA's entry into World War I. Arnold's sibling, Duncan, has returned home to Upstate New York before shipping off to Europe so he can mark the start of hunting season with their mother, Elizabeth, a gracious beauty — played by Mary-Louise Parker — who married into wealth and status.
Arnold has, since his father's death, discovered that the old man was a rather hapless fellow who squandered his family fortune, leaving his survivors in debt. As the less-serious Duncan learns of this situation and the grief-racked Elizabeth tries to deny it altogether, Snow Geese spins its wheels for a bit.
But after a slow start, White's play (jointly produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater) evolves, under Daniel Sullivan's meticulous direction, into a lovely, moving account of a clan's struggle to adapt to trying circumstances and a changing world.
White's Broadway debut, The Other Place, produced earlier this year, also followed a middle-aged woman whose grasp on reality was challenged, but it was a psychological mystery that blurred lines between past and present, imagination and fact. This more conventionally structured study of unlucky souls seems to have been written under Chekhov's spell.
No one actually declares, "I am the snow goose," though Elizabeth does call Arnold "Pigeon." Duncan is her "bear," the golden boy whose carefree, rakish air reminds her of her husband. He has been coddled accordingly, sent to elite schools while Arnold pines for his mother's affection.
But Snow Geese does not follow a predictable, tragic course. The characters and the story develop poignantly and credibly; problems aren't magically solved, but perspective is gained and the potential for growth implied. Elizabeth's maid, a Ukrainian refugee played with haunted grace by Jessica Love, tells Arnold, "There are many worse things than losing money."
Elizabeth's rigid but kindhearted sister and her husband, a German physician, have also suffered, losing their daughter to illness and his practice to xenophobia. The marvelous Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark fully convey their loss and their dignity.
Evan Jonigkeit's Duncan and Brian Cross' Arnold are another compelling duo, conveying the sensitivity these different young men share. And Parker brings to Elizabeth a dazed weariness and a quirky, girlish quality that emphasize her capacity for denial.
"There isn't order in the world," she says at one point. Perhaps not, but The Snow Geese suggests that we can each at least pursue a separate peace.
Mary-Louise Parker is much too delicate and entirely too fashionable (in stunning widow’s weeds designed by Jane Greenwood) to be stuck in Syracuse in the dead of winter and at the end of the Gilded Age in America. But that’s the price of playing a Chekhovian heroine in “The Snow Geese,” Sharr White’s bland homage to the master of upper-class existential malaise. The family in this domestic drama is, indeed, as melancholy as any family in a Russian play. But they’re so shallow and self-centered that they are welcome to their misery.
Faced with financial ruin after the recent death of her profligate husband, plucky Elizabeth Gaesling (Parker) is determined to honor his memory by staging one last shooting party on the family estate in upstate New York. In “The Other Place,” White proved himself sensitive to the emotional attachment that people have always had to their beloved family homesteads, and “The Snow Geese” speaks to that devotion.
John Lee Beatty has designed an imposing country home in the grand manner, its lustrous wood furnishings and intricate decorative details the last word in tasteful elegance. The place practically melts with warmth, in Japhy Weideman’s lighting design. And that ancient evergreen forest on the property gives the home place a sense of eternity. No wonder the Gaesling family can’t bear to leave.
In recent years — that is, since the beginning of World War I — the lodge has also served as a safe refuge from the “Germanaphobia” raging in the city. A good bit of that ill-will has been directed toward Elizabeth’s sister, Clarissa (a quiet sufferer, in Victoria Clark’s perceptive perf), and her German-born husband, Max Hohmann (who grows in stature in Danny Burstein’s ennobling perf), a German-born doctor deserted by his patients.
Helmer Daniel Sullivan has done his customary classy job of giving the production a unifying look, but the show lacks a sturdy performance backbone. Clark and Burstein are plenty solid as the unhappy Hohmanns, and Jessica Love is quietly compelling as Viktorya Gryaznoy, a Ukrainian immigrant of good birth, forced to work as a cook.
But whatever dramatic tension there is in this static drama comes from the interplay between Elizabeth and her two sons — the pampered pretty boy (Evan Jonigkeit) who accepts all social privileges as his due, and the pragmatic younger son (Brian Cross) struggling with the family’s hopeless finances — and neither thespian is up to the job. This leaves Parker adrift and more inclined to offer a star turn than the grounded performance needed to keep this wispy play from flying away to go where the wild geese go.