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Upstairs, Downstairs

"The Country Club" is a deft, sad tale of twentysomething blue bloods at loose ends; "Mud" and "Drowning" give you the feeling of drowning in mud.

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Having cordially disliked douglas carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown by the Drama Dept., where Beane is artistic director, I expected little from his current Drama Dept. offering, The Country Club. Imagine my surprise: This play about Wasps in their late twenties who hang out in the Cub Room of a provincial Pennsylvania country club is both funny and moving, devilishly well observed, and niftily constructed. The dialogue is by turns glibly posturing, fumblingly poetic, cuttingly punchy, often covering up aches and voids beneath, and always right.

Five of the seven characters were high-school chums. Soos (for Susan) was the sleek class secretary dating Zip (for Thomas Mueller III), the handsome and clever class president. After school, the pair decided to marry. Pooker (for Patricia) was droll and slightly kooky; Froggy (for Louise) was rich and spunky; Hutch (for Gregg Hutchinson), always disheveled and uncontrolled, was Zip's -- and everyone's -- best friend. Bri arrived later, married Froggy, and is under her thumb, but otherwise fits in. Soos married and divorced in California and is back for a couple of weeks that somehow keep multiplying. Pooker has an unseen boyfriend who regrettably isn't cute. The gifted and promising Zip is still working for his dad and stagnating; Soos may be hoping to resume with him.

The group meets at the country club on every holiday from New Year's Eve to Christmas. Also for weddings, as when Hutch marries a rather lower-class Philadelphia Italian girl, the Catholic Chloe, looked down upon by the snobbish, Protestant clubbies. But Zip falls in love with his best friend's wife; and everybody, Hutch included, finds out.

Even as the decorations and clothes for each holiday change, the denizens of the Cub Room indulge in continuous frolics and rivalries, huddlings and betrayals, horseplay and sex on the hardwood floor. As short scene follows short scene, the wit, the booze, and the intermittent tears keep flowing. Most of the characters reveal sorry weaknesses but also unsuspected bits of nobility. "We all have our little stories," Pooker comments. "And no one brings them up. That's what's known as community spirit." Yet she can be quite stinging about Zip: "The man is selling real estate in Pennsylvania. You think that would humble a person."

Soos guesses that Zip will drop her by a look in his eyes: "All women know that look," she tells him. "Mothers train their daughters for that look. There are flash cards with that look on them." When he asks, "You know what I'm going to say?," she retorts, "Why do you think I've been babbling like a Nazi spy on truth serum? I don't want to hear you say it." Froggy describes Chloe's bridal getup: "She looks like Susan Lucci. Why would anyone want to look like Susan Lucci?"

Married Chloe has second thoughts about the terrific sex she just had with Zip: "You Methodists or whatever you all are act like sin is . . . a stroke missed on the golf course or something. I was brought up right. . . . And this is a sin, whether it is mortal or venial I cannot tell you. I just should get myself to a confessional with a priest who don't know my aunt Gina and find out. Where's my bra?" But Zip insists they love each other: "We just don't know it because . . . you're a Catholic and I'm a Republican and denial is like the first response for us."

Amy Hohn is a splendidly rambunctious Pooker, Amy Sedaris an irrepressibly self-absorbed Froggy, Peter Benson a nicely part-subdued Bri, and Frederick Weller a touching goofball of a Hutch. Tom Everett Scott's Zip is equally fine when debonair or preposterous, impassioned or impish. And Cynthia Nixon is the dream Soos, getting every contradictory facet of that tricky creature dazzlingly right. Only Callie Thorne is miscast: Though she acts Chloe well enough, she lacks her much-remarked-on good looks and sexiness.

The production is impeccable: set by James M. Youmans, lighting by Frances Aronson, and smashing costumes by Jonathan Bixby and Gregory A. Gale. Christopher Ashley has directed with ingenuity and assurance: You will seldom see better-written and -directed scenes than the first and last of Act Two. In contrast to his work in Bees, Beane here writes about what he knows, with insight, infectious impudence, and not a little compassion.


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