Modern play recipe for disaster: Start with one needy but beguiling woman coddled and cared for by the men around her, make sure you separate the woman from her husband (death is a good option) so she is left floundering in a soup of helplessness and woe, then mix in a precious child who is so charming that's all anyone tells you is how charming he is, and then gently fold in a son who does everything for everyone and no one notices him. Add a splash of ethnic color with a German Uncle, and a Ukrainian maid, a soupçon of World War I panic, and a heavy dose of money troubles. Set it in the country to bake. In no time at all you'll have a Chekhovian soufflé that will be sure to fail because you're not Chekhov.
Welcome to Sharr White's (The Other Place) new play, The Snow Geese, directed by Daniel Sullivan. A saggy, half-baked mess which boasts a stellar cast who are sadly left struggling to breathe life into a thin script.
Golden boy Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) has returned to his family's shooting cottage two months after his fathers death. His mother Elizabeth (Mary Louise Parker) is struggling to hold things together. On the eve of being set off to war as part of a tony regiment of the wealthiest scions of New York, Duncan's whole life has been society parties and aggressive social climbing. Whereas his younger brother, the oft neglected Arnold (Brian Cross), is in need of Duncan's help. Turns out Arnold has combed through the family books and has figured out that the family is broke. But no one will listen to Arnold. Also under the same roof are the boys' Aunt Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and Uncle Max (Danny Burstein). Max, still saddled with a German accent after 30 years in America, has been unable to practice medicine after the war broke out. They've brought along their maid Viktorya (Jessica Love) who was an aristocrat in Europe but was driven from her homeland by the war.
It's a house full of people who are stuck--lost in grief, religion, or self-absorption. Now Chekhov made a career out of giving people like this a voice. The vain, the moneyed, the climbers, and the put-upon. And he had a knack for finding the poetry in their inertia. All White brings to this play is a family and the inertia. Everything is done in broad strokes so nothing feels authentic emotionally or dramatically.
The 1917 setting is constantly spoken of but most of the play feels anachronistic--spiritually and linguistically. Perhaps his intent was not to create an accurate portrait of 1917 life, but the costumes and setting suggest this was supposed to be close to the mark and not an attempt at Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson revisionism. I never felt the characters expressed or grasped the fear or anxiety of the world at war even though that war had come to their doorsteps and they talked about it a lot. But the worst crime of the play is that the characters end up shallow portraits and not flesh and blood humans.
Despite the length and a lot of talking, the characters remain symbols or ideas. Although the above the title draw is Mary Louise Parker, most of the drama comes from the tension between the two sons. Of course there are many plays where the rivalry of brothers, the beloved and the forgotten, can provide for powerful drama and emotional catharsis. I was a sobbing, snot covered mess after seeing Arthur Miller's The Price. But in The Snow Geese, neither performer quite finds the heart of his character or an emotional hook for the audience--though I largely blame the script for setting up the idea of a conflict between the brothers but failing to make it the least bit engaging. It was like watching a writing exercise where someone was trying to purge their emotional problems but feared going too deep or getting to close to the material. So it's the idea of a struggle without any energy behind it.
One of things I have enjoyed in the Chekhov plays I have seen is how he takes longing--whether for fame, riches, escape, love, or freedom--and let's it grow, then fester or abscess. The audience gets to see the characters want, and then sees that desire fall through the characters' fingers or exist just beyond their reach. Sometimes it is a mirage and the drama is in watching the character find out for himself.
Here, White takes each character's desire and puts a fine point on it. They say what they want. They say it again. They say it a lot. It probably won't happen because they are delusional. But you never FEEL them wanting anything...because they have said it. Over and over again. There is no where to go. Nothing to grow into. Someone forgot the subtext.
It's hard not to make the Chekhov comparison because it feels like White himself is striving so hard for that kind of emotional family epic with the back-drop of a changing world impinging on the family's sense of self. I'm a fan of plays that try for something nobly even if they fall short and fail. But here, the play did not feel like it was trying at all. Like White had taken Chekhov down to his literal bones and thought all he had to do was plug his words into that basic framework and voilà. I was enraged at how poor it was both on its own merit or in comparison to other dramas and for making a cast
of terrific actors jump through such lumbering and imprecise
As I sat their fuming over the utter waste of Parker, Clark and Burstein, I found myself appreciating Chekhov all the more. Of course when Chekhov is done badly it can be like watching paint dry. But when done right, the modernity of it--the self-awareness, avoidance of self-knowledge, the desires to move outside of class and station, the connection to the natural world, the agonizing anxieties of money and desire at conflict with one another--is breathtaking.
The Snow Geese unfortunately may have thrown many of those things into the mixing bowl, but it still ended up a flavorless porridge.