Fans of Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) or Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) drawn to the Classic Stage Company’s production of “A Month in the County” surely don’t expect anybody to be beheaded, or shivved in the prison shower, in this comedy of manners written by Ivan Turgenev in the 1850s. But just as surely they couldn’t have known it would feel like homework.
Schilling plays Natalya Petrovna, a rich, bored housewife. She is bored with her marriage to the older, wealthy landowner Arkady (portrayed as clueless and ineffectual by Anthony Edwards, a TV star from a previous generation, for his role in ER.) She is also bored with her life-long friendship with Rakitin (Dinklage), who long has been secretly in love with her. Enter 21-year-old Aleksey (Mike Faist), who has been hired to be her young son’s tutor, although he is largely himself uneducated. But he is lively and fun-loving, and Natalya falls in love with him. But so, Natalya suspects, does Vera, Natalya’s 17-year-old adopted daughter (Megan West.) Natalya schemes to get rid of her daughter/rival, by marrying her off to an older, awkward neighbor, whose chief asset is that he owns 320 serfs.
CSC artistic director Brian Kulick points out, in a useful essay, that critics have read Turgenev’s play as both an astute pre-Freudian study of one woman’s psychology, and a political examination of the time and place that she and the other characters inhabit– contrasting the “declining gentry” with the “healthy and honest” servants who represent the future of Russia.
Reading John Christopher Jones’s translation commissioned for the CSC production, though, one picks up not just Turgenev’s psychological and political insights, but also a great deal of humor centered on love and misunderstanding – which here are nearly synonymous. Unrequited love descends upon character after character in “A Month in the Country” like a seasonal flu.
Somehow little of this comedy makes its way fully from page to stage, in what winds up being less than a memorable production. For the play to reach its full potential as entertainment, there has to be a sense that Natalya is driven by deep but capricious passion, which winds up disrupting everybody else’s life in an outcome that is equal parts pathetic, tragic and comic. But Schilling’s performance seems to have little depth; she is as showy and as lacking in a range of palettes as each decorous costume by Tom Broecker that she wears. Few of the characters indeed seem to have any kind of urgent emotions beneath their proper exteriors, for which one must fault not the cast but director Erica Schmidt. Dinklage, who is Schmidt’s husband, gives among the most persuasive performances. This may be in part because his character is supposed to be more adept at hiding his emotions; he expresses his full bitterness only in a monologue near the end: “Just you wait,” he advises the tutor. “You’ll find the hate in love.”
A highlight of this production turns out to be the courtship between Dr. Shpigelsky and Lizaveta, which could not be more hilariously devoid of passion, anti-romantic to its core:
“Please, let’s be practical. We like each other. I don’t make a lot, but I have a pretty decent practice. Not all of my patients die. And you’ve got, so you tell me, fifteen thousand of your own in cash. That’s nothing to sneeze at. We fit rather nicely.”
Yet this lack of passion is brought to passionate life by Thomas Jay Ryan, whose cynical, two-faced doctor is the clear stand-out in this production. Lizabeta is portrayed by Annabella Sciorra, who pulls off her relatively small role with a nuance absent from any of the TV stars in this “A Month in the Country.” She, like them, are used to over-the-top screen roles: She played Tony Soprano’s crazy self-destructive mistress.
A Month in the Country
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
Cast: 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).
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes including one intermission.
A Month in the Country is scheduled to run through February 22, 2015
Update: Extended through February 28