Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage. Photo by Joan Marcus

Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage. Photo by Joan Marcus

Review by Tulis McCall

To quote from the excellent Newsletter of Classic Stage Company – “There is a somewhat apocryphal story that when the Moscow Art Theatre asked to do Chekhov’s The Seagull, his immediate response was, ‘Why don’t you do Turgenev’s A Month In The Country? It’s so much better.’

The play was written by Ivan Turgenev in the 1850’s. In the words of Vladimir Nabokov: ‘Russia in those days was one huge dream: the masses slept—figuratively; the intellectuals spent sleepless nights—literally—sitting up and talking about things, or just meditating until five in the morning and then going out for a walk. There was a lot of flinging-oneself-down-on-one’s-bedwithout-undressing-and-sinking-into-a-heavyslumber stuff, or jumping into their crinolines, sprinkling their faces with cold water, and running out, as fresh as roses, into the garden, where the inevitable meeting takes place in a bower.’ ”

Turgenev was a predecessor to Chekov, and this play travels down paths we associate with the later. Here is feels that the path is a bit narrower. While other matters flutter about like silly bees, the main matter here is love. Who has it, who doesn’t, who needs it, who deserves it.

The center of this universe is Natalya (Taylor Schilling) who has little to occupy her time besides being adored by her best friend Rakitin (Peter Dinklage) who reads to her, or does anything else she wants just for the pleasure of basking in her light. Her husband Arkady (Anthoy Edwards) is preoccupied with running the estate and has more emotion about his plans and the required equipment than he does about his own family. So Natalya is free to pretend to be happy. All goes smoothly with servants and her mother Anna (the excellent Elizabeth Franz) and the occasional visit by the cryptic doctor Shpigelsky (Thomas J. Ryan) until the applecart is overturned. The cause of the upset is the arrival of the summer tutor Aleksey Belyaev (Mike Faist) who has won the affection of Natalya’s son Kolya (Ian Etheridge) as well as her ward, Vera (Megan West). It soon becomes clear that the young tutor has made an impression on Natalya as well – the kind that will bring trouble to River City.

Within a nano-second Natalya has set her cap for the tutor and arranged for a proposal from their neighbor Bolshintsov (Peter Appel) – with a bond of three horses for the doctor if all goes as planned.  She then leaps headlong into the fire.  Soon she and the tutor are awash in lust and passion that cannot go unnoticed.

As a result of her seriously bad judgement, Natalya loses the companionship of her dear friend Ratiken, who will not sit around and watch the world fall apart.  Belyaev is forced to leave, and her ward accepts the marriage that the doctor advocates. Then there is the departure of mother’s companion Lizaveta (Annabella Sciorra) for a marriage convenience with the good doctor. Because of her folly Natalya ends up more alone that she could have imagined.

There is something tragic and a little magical about this story. That this woman makes a mistake and is condemned to a life of quiet monotony is a daring proposition for the 1850’s when women were not to take their lives into their hands. This production, however, never works itself up to the passion that is described. Dinklage is convincing for the most part, but the rest, with the exception of Ryan and Franz (who knows how to move in her costume – Ms. Schilling could take a page or two from that book), seems once removed. The second act moves more swiftly than the first, but the entire production is just a touch too polite, too calm, too bland.

Natalya and Belyaev are supposed to possess a passion that shakes the very earth on which these people trod. Instead it offers  lip service, but not much more.  The tragedy is a Ho-Hum rather than the intended Oh-NOOO!!!

By Ivan Turgenev; translated by John Christopher Jones; directed by Erica Schmidt; sets by Mark Wendland; costumes by Tom Broecker; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Bart Fasbender; general manager, John C. Hume; production stage manager, Jillian M. Oliver; production supervisor, Production Core; production manager, Amber Mathis. Presented by Classic Stage Company, Brian Kulick, artistic director; Jeff Griffin, managing director; Greg Reiner, executive director. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, East Village; 212-352-3101, classicstage.org. Through Feb. 22. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

WITH: Peter Appel (Bolshintsov), Peter Dinklage (Rakitin), Anthony Edwards (Arkady), Ian Etheridge (Koyla), Mike Faist (Belyaev), Elizabeth Franz (Anna), James Joseph O’Neil (Matvei), Elizabeth Ramos (Katya), Thomas Jay Ryan (Shpigelsky), Taylor Schilling (Natalya), Annabella Sciorra (Lizaveta), Frank Van Putten (Schaaf) and Megan West (Vera).