New York City Theater
"A Month in the Country"
Classic Stage Company
You know it’s a classic Russian play when the characters say they’re bored and want to go to Moscow. Obviously, pre-revolutionary aristocrats have little to do, except kvetch. Maybe a change from dull provincial to more exciting urban life will save their sanity.
So it is with Ivan Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country,” now in an alternately bland and absorbing revival at the Classic Stage Company. But a case may be made that the blandness is itself a cover-up of passionate thoughts and feelings in a world where “you’ll find the hate in love,” with all that emotion’s insecurities, impossibilities and irrationalities.
The characters’ entrapment is reinforced by Mark Wendland’s striking, claustrophobic set design that surrounds the playing area with a low wall. Upstage is a row of birches. Above hangs an upper storey of Arkady’s mansion. The characters are closed-in, held as much by home and land as by their circumstances. The atmosphere is that of a greenhouse, stifling hot and lacking fresh air. No wonder escape is sought.
Arkady’s wife, the beautiful Natalya, is in love with her ward Vera’s 21-year-old tutor, Belyaev. Natalya is, in turn, loved by family friend, the ever-hopeful Rakitin. (“Is she bored with me?” he asks himself.) Meanwhile, Dr. Shpigelsky chastely woos a bemused Lizaveta. These would-be couplings contrast with two randy servants who guiltlessly chase each other when no one is looking.
The air reeks with unrequited sex, shaded from fulfillment as Natalya shades herself with her umbrella. These are people desirous of keeping cool in the face of passion. What’s good for the peasants is too daring for the nobility.
Turgenev wrote the play in 1850 but ran into trouble with the censors, among whose demands were to make Natalya a widow and avoid any hint of adultery, however unconsummated. It wasn’t mounted until 22 years later, but didn’t come into its own until 1909 in a Moscow Arts Theater production.
At CSC, in a new, easy-flowing translation by John Christopher Jones, the play benefits from a starry cast. Taylor Shilling (“Orange is the New Black”) is a laid-back but frustrated Natalya trying to keep emotions in check, while Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) uses his probing eyes and mellifluous voice to create a fiercely devoted, bitter and ultimately pragmatic Rakitin. Megan West is a luminous Vera, but Mike Faist’s Belyaev, the object of lust, is a cipher.
The great Elizabeth Franz is a commanding Anna. But it’s Thomas Jay Ryan as the wry Shpigelsky and Annabella Sciorra as the subtle Lizaveta who bring out the play’s love-hate themes. As directed by Erica Schmidt, Ryan and Sciorra’s seductive tête-à-tête captures Turgenev’s conflicting contrasts of class, comedy, tragedy and the limits of passion. Even suppressed heat is especially welcome these cold days and nights.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 3, 2015