An astute, able 'Country Girl'


"The Country Girl" is atypical Clifford Odets. The relationships it depicts are personal, not political, and instead of using the theater as a soapbox, it uses the theater as its setting.

In other words, this is one of those plays about playmaking which theater people love to perform. That may help explain why the 1950 script has had several New York revivals in recent years, and why the Vagabond Players chose it as part of the 75th anniversary season.

Directed by Miriam Bazensky, the cast does an able job weaving Odets' intricate, well-observed web of human relations. Actually, this is a triangular web, and its ruling passion isn't romance but theater.

JTC An up-and-coming director named Bernie Dodd suddenly finds himself in need of a leading man and decides to take a chance on a down-and-out alcoholic actor named Frank Elgin. Robert Bayer's Elgin makes his entrance with his whole body shaking; ** he looks like such a wreck, you expect him to keel over on the spot. He's less successful, however, at portraying Elgin's subsequent humor and eventual triumph.

Elgin has two bulwarks propping him up: his young wife and the ambitious director. Although both of these characters want the same thing -- Elgin's successful comeback -- they are at odds from the start.

Director Dodd initially appears to be a perceptive judge of character. But he confuses the needs of his show with the needs of his leading man. Tom Nolte effectively conveys Dodd's drive, but he never seems sufficiently hard-edged; he's simply too likable.

In contrast, except for her nickname, "the country girl," Mrs. Elgin is under no illusions, and Trisha Blackburn shows us a woman as street-smart as she is headstrong. She knows her husband and his limitations, possibly better than he does himself and definitely better than Dodd does.

Ms. Blackburn delivers the most natural performance on stage in this challenging, pivotal role; she captures Mrs. Elgin so thoroughly that even when she's not speaking, you sense her thinking the character's thoughts.

"The Country Girl" has more than its share of cliches; that's probably one reason it was so well-suited to all-star Hollywood treatment in 1954. It also contains a slew of clunky lines.

However, Odets was a far more astute observer of human behavior than his fictitious director, Dodd. "The Country Girl" hits a few nerves, and at the Vagabonds, Ms. Blackburn's performance makes them sting.

"The Country Girl" continues at the Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, weekends through March 17; call 563-9135.

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