Stars of broadcast, cable and streaming television are all onstage in the Classic Stage Company’s Off-Broadway revival of Ivan Turgenev’s 19th century classic A Month in the Country. But the results are far from gimmicky. Yes, there’s marquee value in the appearances by Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) and Anthony Edwards (ER). But this buoyantly entertaining production expertly mines the work for all its humor and pathos, its psychological insights into the human condition having preceded Chekhov by several decades.
Set on a Russian estate in the 1840s, the play depicts the myriad emotional entanglements among its disparate inhabitants, with unrequited love and fierce jealousy prominently figuring in the proceedings. Natalya (Schilling), the bored, beautiful 29-year-old wife of the older landowner Arkady (Edwards), is desperately coveted by his best friend Rakitin (Dinklage). She, meanwhile, has her eyes on her young son’s 21-year-old tutor Aleksey (Mike Faist), as does her 17-year-old ward Vera (Megan West).
Further romantic complications involve a cynical doctor, Shpigelsky (Thomas Jay Ryan), who seeks to entice Vera into marrying a much older, unattractive older man (Peter Appel) in return for the promise of three horses from the besotted suitor. He also woos the spinster Lizaveta (Annabella Sciorra, luminous in her too brief role), although his no-nonsense approach is far from romantic.
Performed in an accessible and vibrant new translation by veteran character actor John Christopher Jones, the play streamlined to a briskly paced running time of slightly more than two hours sparkles under the direction of Erica Schmidt. Among the well-honed ensemble, the standout is Dinklage (Schmidt’s real-life spouse), who brings an aching ferocity to the desperate Rakitin. In addition to garnering frequent laughs with his acerbically comic line readings, he’s deeply moving when conveying his character’s anguish over being ignored by the object of his affections. One priceless moment comes when he repeats Natalya’s offhand remark that “We part as friends” with a horrified emphasis.
Schilling, making her New York stage debut, acquits herself nicely in a role previously played onstage by such luminaries as Uta Hagen and Helen Mirren. Looking gorgeous in a serious of sumptuous costumes designed by Tom Broecker, she well conveys Natalya’s flighty emotionalism, her hair literally becoming undone when finally allowed to indulge her romantic longings.
Edwards makes the spurned, oblivious husband a deeply poignant figure, desperately trying to hang onto his wife and his best friend amidst the tumultuous goings-on. There’s also solid work by Ryan, vividly sleazy as the scheming doctor; West, touching as the young woman who sacrifices her future after her romantic overtures to Aleksey prove unreturned; and Elizabeth Franz as Arkady’s mother who observes the chaotic proceedings with increasing dismay. The sole disappointment is the gangly, boyish Faist, who lacks the charisma and commanding physicality to make his character’s supposed irresistibility to the women sufficiently convincing.
The production’s other disappointing aspect is Mark Wendland’s set consisting of a nearly bare stage, with props and various pieces of furniture wheeled in as necessary and a backdrop of painted birch trees. Looming overhead is a modernistic, boxlike frame of a house, complete with windows, that simply hangs there in bizarre fashion and adds little in the way of atmosphere.
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But that’s to quibble about this otherwise excellent production which gains emotional immediacy thanks to the highly intimate theater in which the actors are but a few feet away. When they frequently turn to directly address the audience, it’s as if we’re privy to the anguished confessions of close friends.
Cast: Peter Appel, Peter Dinklage, Anthony Edwards, Ian Etheridge, Mike Faist, Elizabeth Franz, James Joseph O’Neil, Elizabeth Ramos, Thomas Jay Ryan, Taylor Schilling, Annabella Sciorra, Frank Van Putten, Megan West
Director: Erica Schmidt
Playwright: Ivan Turgenev
Translator: John Christopher Jones
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Tom Broecker
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by the Classic Stage Company