Mary-Louise Parker (“Weeds”) makes a not–so–brilliant return to Broadway as a widowed mother facing financial trouble during World War I in “The Snow Geese.”
Set in November of 1917 in Syracuse, N.Y., the play opens with the story of the Gaesling family. Elizabeth Gaesling (Parker), who has recently lost her husband and has not yet recovered, decides to host a shooting party at the family lodge in memory of her late husband, who soon is revealed to have driven the family into serious financial trouble. Elizabeth stays at the lodge with her two sons, the somber and pragmatic Arnold Gaesling and the self-centered Duncan Gaesling, who is about to be shipped off to war. Elizabeth’s sister, Clarissa Hohmann, and brother-in-law, Max Hohmann, also stay at the lodge, alternatively attempting to get Elizabeth back on her feet again.
If the plot doesn’t seem particularly enthralling, that’s because it’s not. In fact, the mood of playwright Sharr White’s work is as cold and lifeless as the cool November day and night during which it takes place. Don’t get me wrong—plays that are driven by quiet domestic tension rather than more high-voltage action and heavy, drawn-out conflicts can work just as well, if not better, if there are characters and relationships and dialogue strong enough to sustain the subtle tension and conflict. However, Parker, the main appeal of a generally colorless play, does not bring much of note to Elizabeth’s character. She spends the entirety of the play looking tired and confused—which, to be fair, appears written into the sad, drab character, who is in a perpetual state of helplessness and mourning—in a performance that remains stuck on one note.
Still, Parker is surrounded by more than able actors. Evan Jonigkeit and Brian Cross, as Duncan and Arnold, respectively, provide tension and sometimes humor through the rivalry that exists between their characters. Duncan is charming but terribly privileged and self-centered, so obviously overcompensating for his insecurities and cluelessness about the world. Arnold is intelligent and unforgiving of his mother for her coldness and aloofness toward him, of his brother for his selfishness, obliviousness and delusions of grandeur, and of his late father for his errors that have doomed the family. Together, the trio of Elizabeth, Duncan and Arnold—with Elizabeth’s sorrow and obvious preference for Duncan, Duncan’s overwhelming sense of privilege and Arnold’s resentment and more subtle but nonetheless still present sense of privilege—create among their relationships a domestic tension that, if fostered, could have possibly developed into something of interest in another play, but as it stands, simply fades into the background.
One of the other inhabitants of the lodge, Clarissa, played by Victoria Clark, is staunchly and occasionally humorously puritanical in her beliefs—a result of her being another victim of grief—but mostly serves as a support to the other characters.
As privileged and self-centered as White has made the Gaesling family to be, he has at least made sure to provide two characters to serve as context with which to highlight the prevalence of the war and the relative insignificance of the family’s quarrels. Danny Burstein acts as Max, Clarissa’s husband and a German doctor whose practice was destroyed as a result of the racist anti-German sentimentality prevalent during the war. Viktorya Gryaznoy (Jessica Love), the sole maid of the Gaesling lodge, is an Ukrainian immigrant who was born into wealth and was destroyed by the war. Love manages to quietly provide perspective without over-sentimentality.
The play has its moments of strength and humor, but they are few and far between, yet the actors do what they can with the text. Despite the work of the cast and its prominent place on the Great White Way, “The Snow Geese” just ends up middling, just lifelessly coasting by.