Playwright Donald Margulies' The Country House takes its mother-son rift, its themes of art and ego and unrequited love, and even its bucolic setting from Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, but what The Country House most has in common with its source material is an ability to scrupulously map all the craggy contours of a human heart.
Rather than the Russian countryside, it's Williamstown, Massachusetts, home to a long-running theater festival that's brought Broadway star Anna (an elegantly wounded Blythe Danner) back to the family's summer home. Still unable to absorb the death of her daughter one year ago from cancer, Anna takes solace in work. On her way into town, she invites over Michael Astor (Scott Foley, brow earnestly furrowed), an old family friend turned TV star who builds schools in the Congo to assuage the meaninglessness of celebrityhood.
Anna's son-in-law, Walter (David Rasche), a Hollywood director who traded in an artist's life in the theater to get rich churning out blockbusters, soon arrives with his new fiancée, Nell (Emily Swallow), in tow, and that May-December couple clash with Walter's college-age daughter, Susie (Sarah Teele), and Anna's hapless son, Elliot (a perfectly bitter Eric Lange).
Where Christopher Durang's 2012 Chekov-themed comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (which ran this past spring at the Mark Taper Forum) found much cartoonish fun in lampooning the Russian master's gloomy Slavs, Margulies, who won the Pulitzer in 2000 for Dinner With Friends, employs a gentler humor, balanced with quietly heartbreaking moments in which he shows more tenderness to his characters than they show themselves.
Director Daniel Sullivan adroitly shepherds his cast through the plot's unhurried unfolding, giving just the right space to long moments full of grief and yearning. He's subtly aided by Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design, which bathes scenic designer John Lee Beatty's picture-perfect set in a wistful, painterly glow.
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The Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through July 13. (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.com.
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