SANTA BARBARA — If "The Country Girl" represents the quality of what the Santa Barbara Theatre Group has to offer in its first season, this theater has only one direction to go, and that's up. Clifford Odets has never appeared more dated, and rarely, in this observer's experience, has an ostensibly professional enterprise started out so shoddily.
One can't even say that this "Country Girl" has a bold new conception that ultimately doesn't work, but nonetheless recommends itself through fresh interpretation, tempered insight into character and relationships, design and coincidentally some good acting to carry us along through the rough spots.
No such luck. This "Country Girl" looks like the antecedent to Bob & Ray's "Mary Noble, Backstage Wife." The plot, if you don't know it, is roughly this: Just prior to its out-of-town opening, a Broadway-bound drama loses its leading man. The director, Bernie Dodd, recalls an actor named Frank Elgin who would be, he thinks, an admirable replacement. But Frank's career hit the skids years ago. He's been a lush. Bernie prevails over his skeptical producer, and Frank's own fearfulness, to do the show. Frank would have everyone believe that his wife Georgie, who controls him, is possessive and manipulative and a near-pathological case.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 8, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 5 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor Brian Keith was erroneously referred to in Monday's Calendar as the "late actor." Keith is alive and well and just completed the season's work as Hardcastle in the ABC television series "Hardcastle and McCormick."
The energy of the play, that is, the series of revelations that keep us going, is based on how Frank has misrepresented Georgie so well that everyone thinks she's a repressive villain, until the truth about Frank is known. But by that time he's in a hit, so no one's about to confront him (that's one of the few parallels the play has with contemporary American life: Success tends to make a man unaccountable, unless he does something blatantly illegal).
Uta Hagen won a New York Drama Critics Award for Georgie in 1951, when the manner and expression of this play were in their last glory. And the movie with Grace Kelly, William Holden and Bing Crosby worked to a great extent because many of Odets' dreadful cliches had been eliminated and we were led to realize how complex and impenetrable a real marriage can be, despite the plaints of its doleful parties. In fact, a case can be made for how an unhappy couple, in this case Frank and Georgie, will implicate a third party (Bernie) to relieve themselves of their pain, or at least gain a new perspective on it--or find someone new to play with.
None of that freshness or latent wisdom is here, however. The extreme vulnerability of Odets' premise (nobody today would fight to hold onto a drunken washout of an actor when so many superb actors are competing for so few big commercial roles) is further weakened by a half-hearted attempt at updating. We hear references to Mayor Koch, stage actors selling out to TV (even though the notion of selling out as something morally repugnant is foreign to the '80s), and reasonably contemporary financial figures.
All of that is seriously undermined when we hear the play's ingenue referred to as "Nancykins" and "Junior Miss," and by Bernie's revelation that the sight of Laurette Taylor sold him on the theater. This Bernie is, on the outside, looking at 35, which means he was born after Taylor died. Odets' corny lines don't help ("Maybe I deserved that (slap). Maybe I didn't. Time will tell on that." "Life knocks the saucing out of us soon enough." "You're very well read, aren't you?" "Loneliness is the badge of a writer's profession.")
You might excuse the technical miscues (lights going up and down at odd moments, a burst of music occuring at the wrong moment) and dumpy set (if you can't shut a door without a whole wall quivering, go free-form), if you had at the center the single most indispensable element of drama--a relationship among vivid, complex, believable characters (or at least characters acceptable in their situations).
Jeffrey Hayden produced and directed, and on opening night it looked as if his instructions had been phoned in. Actors were uncertain of their lines, speech rhythms faltered, no one had the chain of an emotional through-line with which to pull along a performance, and no one was remotely believable.
Steve Marachuk is seriously miscast as the director Bernie. He's too young, self-conscious, cold and blank to be anybody's director, and the sexual flare-up between his Bernie and Georgie is an awkward surprise--and just as awkwardly maintained--not the result of a hidden buildup (and what's with that glittering earring in his left ear?)