January 31, 2015

"A Month in the Country" Proves Uneventul

A Month in the Country, which opened at Classic Stage Company this past Thursday, was written five years before Anton Chekhov was even born. But the setting, the themes and the characters will be familiar to anyone who has seen any of that Russian master’s country house plays in which idle aristocrats and their hangers-on battle ennui, hypocrisy and repressed emotions.

And like Chekhov’s works, this version of that story is part tragedy and party comedy. The mix can be a challenge. A Month in the Country was considered so scandalous when Ivan Turgenev originally published it in 1855 that it wasn’t performed until 1872. 

The play’s central character is Natalya, the fickle wife of a wealthy but dull landowner who fills her time by flirting with her husband’s best friend even though she knows he is not-so-secretly in love with her. But then, she suddenly turns her affections to Aleksey, the college boy who has been hired to tutor her young son. 

And that’s just the start of the daisy chain. For when Natalya realizes that her 17-year-old ward Vera has also fallen for Aleksey, she tries to marry the girl off to an elderly neighbor. 

Meanwhile, the local doctor (there’s always a local doctor around in these plays even though no one is ever sick) woos the spinsterish companion of Natalya’s mother-in-law and a few of the household servants take time from their chores to get it on as well.

That’s a whole lot of plot and it originally unspooled over five acts, lasting more than three hours. But John Christopher Jones has done a translation that slims everything down to a compact two hours. He’s also opted for contemporary language and a tone that leans toward comedy, mined particularly well by Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays the doctor with a deadpan wryness.

But what makes this revival the hot ticket that it’s become is the presence of its stars Taylor Schilling from the Netflix women-in-prison series “Orange is the New Black” and Peter Dinklage from the HBO dungeons-and dragons series “Game of Thrones.” Under the direction of Erica Schmidt, who also happens to be Dinklage’s wife (click here to read an interview with her) both stars acquit themselves well enough. 

Schilling, dressed in a series of gorgeous gowns by costumer Tom Broecker, is lovely to look at, making it easy to see why all the men desire Natalya. And Dinklage, wandering around Mark Wendland’s spare but elegant set, is appropriately hangdog as the unrequited Rakitin, his diminutive size lending an extra layer of poignancy to the character's unhappiness.

But, as I said, these Russian plays are notoriously difficult to pull off. They’re smooth, almost facile, on the surface but roiling underneath. And this production only gets part of that right.

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