In the English-speaking theater, Turgenev is more or less well known for just one play, his 1850 pre-Chekhovian “A Month in the Country.” Mike Poulton’s “Fortune’s Fool,” an adaptation of Turgenev’s 1848 play “A Poor Gentlemen,” is unlikely to change matters.
The play is presumably meant to be a bittersweet social comedy of mid-19th-century Russian life on a country estate. But in its pre-Broadway tryout in Stamford, as filtered through the sensibilities of British adapter Poulton, American director Arthur Penn and a British-American cast, the play comes across as dated, provincial and sometimes tedious — and seldom either funny or touching. The production would seem to need drastic revision if “Fortune’s Fool” is to make it in New York.
Poulton’s adaptation was previously produced at England’s Chichester Festival, with Alan Bates and his son, Benedick Bates, in the cast. They repeat their roles here.
Bates pater plays the title role of Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin, a Russian country estate’s impoverished “court jester/fool/whipping boy/pet monkey” who, as the play proceeds, reveals that his relationship to the estate’s young heiress, Olga (a valiant Enid Graham), newly wed and just returned from St. Petersburg after years away, is more complicated than anyone had supposed.
The show’s other marquee performer, Frank Langella, plays Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov, a neighboring estate owner who is dubbed “an infamous fatuous fop” by Vassily, and who liberally sprinkles his precious chatter with French.
Under Penn’s direction, both Bates and Langella give odd, rudderless performances. The former is all fuss and dither, the latter all exquisite effeteness, as if he were in a stock production of a Restoration comedy (though he does at least liven things up at the beginning). Neither performance fits into the greater scheme of the play.
The rest of the cast ranges from competent to barely competent. (Understudy John Newton took the place of Charles Antalosky at the reviewed performance.) Benedick Bates is bland as Olga’s new husband; George Morfogen has the thankless role of another hanger-on; Timothy Doyle looks like a refugee from a Dickens novel as Flegont’s charity-case companion (or lover?) Karpatchov (dubbed “Little Fish”). Nobody is convincingly Russian.
Certainly the senior Bates has the toughest job; his role has a big monologue in each act. In the first, it’s a drunk scene in which Flegont maliciously plies Vassily with wine and champagne and makes a public fool of him as he tells an endless, rambling tale of being the rightful heir of his grandfather’s estate, a prize tied up in a lawsuit for 27 years. The second monologue is another tale of the distant past, delivered to Olga.
John Arnone has provided a country-house interior setting for each act. Jane Greenwood has designed the period costumes. Neither is at his or her best.
But then neither is Turgenev, who wrote almost all of his plays between 1847 and 1851 and then gave up playwriting at 33 because “the stage is not my place.”
“Fortune’s Fool” did not have a press opening in Stamford. Variety covered it toward the end of its Feb. 22-March 3 run. The production is scheduled to begin previews at Broadway’s Music Box Theater on March 8 for an April 2 opening.