Frances McDormand, Morgan Freeman, and Peter Gallagher
in The Country Girl
(© Brigitte Lacombe)
Frances McDormand, Morgan Freeman, and Peter Gallagher
in The Country Girl
(© Brigitte Lacombe)
These days, when Mike Nichols chooses to direct a play, it's exciting news. One of the absolute best in his field over the past 40 years, he hasn't steered a straight play on Broadway since 1992 and the movie-star-studded Death and the Maiden. So there were great expectations when it was revealed he would helm a revival of Clifford Odets' 1950 backstage drama The Country Girl, and oversee another trio of movie names: namely Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand, and Peter Gallagher.

But the news turns out not to be so exciting now that the production has arrived. Although it's a workman-like treatment of the play, it doesn't rise to the inspired level Nichols usually reaches when he's calling the shots. Moreover, two of the central trio aren't doing as much with the pithy Odets speeches as they might.

This second-tier work, which has been subtly and judiciously trimmed by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, concerns actor Frank Elgin (Freeman), who's hired to star in a Broadway-bound play after being on the bottle for too long. The severe drinking began when he and wife Georgie (McDormand) suffered the death of their four-year-old daughter.

As a result of that tragedy, and a couple of unwise play investments, their marriage has taken a severe financial and emotional beating. The country girl -- which is how Georgie refers to herself in amused self-effacement -- has stuck around, but the nature of her hold over Frank is confusing to Bernie Dodd (Gallagher), the new play's hard-nosed director, and to Phil Cook (Chip Zien), its bottom-line-obsessed producer.

These four confront the complications from Frank's hiring through the Boston try-out to the Gotham opening night. As they grapple with Frank's return to alcohol -- it's 22 percent of the cough medicine he's supposedly taking to treat a cold -- Georgie has to handle both the persistent Bernie's misconception of her and with Frank's dissembling; he even ascribes his own alcoholic past to Georgie.

Nichols hits pay dirt with much of the backstage behavior. Gallagher, using no end of gruff yet conciliatory gestures, is charismatic as he conjures a man wedded to his profession who'll use any means he can to achieve his ends. The supporting actors -- the cigar-chewing Zien, soft-spoken Remy Auberjonois as playwright Paul Unger, perky Anna Camp as ingénue Nancy Stoddard, earnest Lucas Caleb Rooney as stage manager Larry, and puttering Joe Roland as dresser Ralph -- are uniformly excellent.

The director is ably assisted by Tim Hatley, who's designed a couple of dressing rooms and the Elgins' studio apartment with the right disheartening dilapidation, and the several scene changes are hidden by a velvet curtain that sweeps gracefully across the stage, while Albert Wolsky's costumes emphasize the Robert Hall palette of the early 1950s.

It's with Freeman and McDormand where Nichols runs into trouble. Much of what they're doing is superficially impressive, but lacks the layers needed to rise to a higher level. Freeman gets Frank's playfulness and pleasure at being at work in a piece that could put him on top again, and McDormand nails Georgie's efficiency -- her knowing what's daily required of her to keep a weak husband active and sober.

But what Nichols has yet to coax out of either actor is a sense of the profound rift caused by a child's death and by years of living close to the bone. Odets' question at the end of this character-study play is whether Georgie will stay with Frank. As presented here, there's little reason why she shouldn't.