Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Month in the Country **

Turgenev’s theater masterpiece has a peculiar history. Written in 1850, a good 50 years before the Chekhov plays it prefigures, it was not produced until 1872 and did not receive proper recognition until the Moscow Art Theatre took it up, at Chekhov’s urging, during the early 1900’s.   It never achieved the popularity of the plays it inspired. Here in New York, Roundabout presented it three times — in 1976, 1979 and, on Broadway, in 1995 in a production directed by Scott Ellis. I saw the 1995 production, which starred Helen Mirren in her Broadway debut. (She almost made me forget that she was a 50-year-old playing a 29-year-old.) Despite the star-studded cast, which also included F. Murray Abraham, Ron Rifkin and Alessandro Nivola, Times critic Vincent Canby panned the production. I recall my reaction as being less negative, although I was disappointed that it didn’t make me re-experience the pleasure I had reading the play. Now CSC has revived the play in a brisk production starring two current television stars, Taylor Schilling of “Orange Is the New Black” and Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones,” and a former one, Anthony Edwards of “ER.” The results are wildly uneven. While Schilling looks perfect for the alluring but chilly Natalya, her interpretation does not dig very deep. Dinklage, on the other hand, makes Rakitin a touching figure. Edwards is properly obtuse as Natalya’s husband Arkady. (Turgenev specifies his age as 36, only 7 years his wife’s senior, but, once again, he has been cast as much older.) Megan West, who plays the murdered girl on “How To Get Away with Murder,” struck me as too perky and childlike in the early scenes, but got better as the play progressed. For me, the weakest link was Mike Faist as Belyaev, the young tutor whose presence destabilizes the household; he lacks the looks and charm to make his attractiveness plausible. The ever watchable Elizabeth Franz makes the most of the role of Arkady’s mother. Thomas Jay Ryan, as the cynical Dr. Shpigelsky, almost steals the show; his proposal to Lizaveta (Annabelle Sciorra) was, at least for me, the play’s highlight. Director Erica Schmidt rushes the play along to its detriment. I was appalled at the interjected scene of Natalya and Belyaev ripping each other’s clothes off, because there is absolutely no basis for it in the text. Tom Broecker’s costumes are fine, but Mark Wendland’s set is strange. A low wall, similar to a courtroom barrier, surrounds the stage. The back wall is a birch forest, which has to be the most cliched shorthand for a Russian setting ever. An oppressive large box overhangs the entire stage, semitransparent in front, which fulfills no function that I could think of unless it is supposed to suggest how confined their world is. The program lists the son as Koyla, instead of Kolya — twice. To his discredit, the Times critic repeated the error. I suppose it’s better to have a flawed production of an important play than none, but it’s a close call. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

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