The characters in “The Snow Geese” reveal so many secrets and unburden themselves of so much complicated history in the first moments of Sharr White’s new play, which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, that you might consider retitling it “Autumn: Onondaga County.”
Tracy Letts wrote a comedy about a crazy family. White, the author of “The Other Place” and “Annapurna,” has written about a somewhat less eccentric family (circa 1917, Syracuse, N.Y.) that recalls something out of Chekov (birds, ponds, a house up for sale) but performs like a parody of Ibsen. Indeed, when a gun is clumsily introduced in Act 1, it doesn’t fail to go off in Act 2. Meanwhile, there are all those secrets, revelations and history to be disclosed.
In “The Snow Geese,” the maid (Jessica Love) isn’t just a maid; she’s a Ukrainian émigré from a once-wealthy family. The brother-in-law (Danny Burstein) isn’t just a brother-in-law; he’s a German émigré who can no longer practice medicine due to wartime discrimination, but somehow he continues to dispense a marvelous drug that has caused his wife (Victoria Clark) to dream about their dead daughter and, in the process, to become a religious fanatic (well, a very devout Methodist).
It’s a drug that now causes the doctor’s sister-in-law (Mary-Louise Parker) to envision her recently dead husband (Christopher Innvar), who resembles their older, favorite son (Evan Jonigkeit), who’s going off to war after a costly stint at Exeter and a round of shooting geese on the family estate. Which leaves it to the younger, neglected son (Brian Cross) to discover that this rich family is suddenly bankrupt due to their father’s profligate ways.
Somewhere in there it is revealed, maybe, that the doctor and his widowed sister-in-law had an affair. But maybe not. There’s so much going on that small things like an incestuous affair or a mere attraction between relatives can get lost. We do know for sure, however, that the widow prefers her older son because she calls him a “golden goose” — and the other son gets stuck with the nickname Pigeon. Who doesn’t like a good soap opera in the theater?
But rather than all these threads leading to a satisfying explosion (no one’s hurt when the gun finally goes off), Act 2 devolves into several long dissertations on the class struggles provoked by the Great War. No one in “The Snow Geese” calls it World War I. They aren’t quite that prescient — but almost. Even the maid gets to yammer on at length about the naivete of Americans in the face of European starvation. And the widow mother, so distracted and dithering in Act 1, later displays encyclopedic knowledge of death-toll statistics from the war across the ocean.
Director Daniel Sullivan, as always, can’t help but put on a good show, aided here by John Lee Beatty’s stupendous set that miraculously converts from dining room to kitchen to sylvan pond. Rocco DiSanti’s projection designs create a holocaust of birds; the effect is stunning but suggests Hitchcock, not the drama onstage.
The actors, when they aren’t required to deliver long resumes or explain New York society of the early 20thcentury, bring credibility to their assignments. In his Broadway debut, Cross is especially sympathetic as the son called Pigeon. Parker, however, can’t be blamed for failing to make sense of the mother’s journey. Between the grieving widow of Act 1 and the Harvard history professor of Act 2, she is required to hallucinate a burlesque sex scene with her dead husband.
The geese have it lucky.