Even with John Malkovich in the lead role, new drama "Lost Land," about the ethnic wrangling and instability of Hungary during the final moments of World War I, won't exactly make theatrical bean-counters rest easy.

Even with John Malkovich in the lead role, new drama “Lost Land,” about the ethnic wrangling and instability of Hungary during the final moments of World War I, won’t exactly make theatrical bean-counters rest easy. But in its best moments, Stephen Jeffreys’ smart, bold and fascinating play combines the extrapolative social lessons of Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” with the kind of quirky, wine-loving characters found in “Sideways.” There’s just a lot of verbose deadwood that needs to be cut away and replaced with juicier timber.

Malkovich, who here plays a disappointed, morally complex victim rather than his typical amoral aggressor, also has to figure out how to show a live audience a lot more pain and vulnerability. It certainly didn’t look like director Terry Johnson had pushed the actor to face his character’s demons. On opening night, the actor was almost blown off the stage by the good-humored diabolism of newish Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov.

“Lost Land” is set in the vineyards of northern Hungary — some 125 miles east of Budapest — where the dessert wine Tokaj is produced. Malkovich plays Kristof, a character based on real Hungarian Count Michael Karolyi, an exiled member of the aristocracy who returned to government in an ill-fated attempt to get his country a decent deal in the redistribution of land that followed the Great War.

In Jeffreys’ semifictional telling, the aristocratic Kristof runs a vineyard with his eccentric sister Ilona (Martha Lavey), a repressed but weirdly sensitive cynic. Kristof has a dull life — shtupping Slovak peasant Anna (Katrina Lenk) and playing with silly little models of bridges and development schemes.

Then a fellow named Miklos (Peyankov) shows up, informing Kristof that he’s wanted in Budapest, where there’s a governmental ear for his schemes. The vineyard owner buys the lie. That leaves Miklos in charge of the vineyard, the grapes, the sister and the aforementioned comely peasant Anna. Governments come and go. Soldiers arrive. Miklos saves the land — but at an appalling moral cost.

One obvious problem with this piece is that the audience knows nothing about the geopolitics of a largely forgotten era in a country that has never been high on the American scale of interest. But for those willing to stick with him through some rough early going, Jeffreys ultimately crafts a play that points out the conundrum in which a progressive member of the bourgeoisie can find himself.

Malkovich’s character isn’t much use to the Marxists — he is, after all, a peasant-abusing landowner who wants to hang on to his beloved vineyard as much as those Chekhovian types liked their orchard. Yet he’s an enemy to the ruling classes and the military. As Miklos, a selfish pragmatist in a uniform, puts it, “a man with ideas” is just not to be trusted.

One certainly could transpose the play’s action to today’s political scene — progressive ideas aren’t exactly a ticket to the top of the Bush administration. In the play’s other main theme, Jeffreys points out how the sensual trappings of wealth — like a really good bottle of wine — are not easily given up.

This all makes genuine food for theatrical thought — enhanced by Jeffreys’ careful demonstration of the roots of ethnic European hostility that would explode later into the atrocities of Bosnia. Even though the play is intentionally set on the margins of power, it’s remarkably deft at expanding the personal into the political and then returning to the messy, petty, class-driven, race-driven prejudices that collapse many people’s lives. It’s just that the momentum sags when the play gets away from those issues and gets caught in ever-diminishing narrative circles of perplexing design.

Peyankov, an actor who hails from Eastern Europe, offers a rich and complex portrayal. If Lavey has less to work with, she fires on all cylinders in the play’s best scene, where she is forced, erotically, by her rough-edged new lover to drink an ancient wine. Director Johnson’s supporting cast is strong, and there’s a huge, grand setting from James Schuette.

That leaves the star (who also did the serviceable costumes). You can see why Jeffreys wrote this for him — Malkovich, a formidable talent, knows and evokes the basic milieu. But we wait in vain to see life weigh upon him, beat him up, make him understand that he loses whichever way he turns. It may not entirely be the actor’s fault — at this point in his career, Malkovich comes with some baggage. On the surface, he’s as interesting as ever to watch. But underneath it all, he appears perplexingly unaffected.

Lost Land

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 500 seats; $60 top

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater production of a play in two acts by Stephen Jeffreys. Directed by Terry Johnson.

Creative

Sets, James Schuette; costumes, John Malkovich; lighting, Scott Zielinski; music and sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, Malcolm Ewen; artistic director, Martha Lavey. Opened, reviewed April 10, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Kristof - John Malkovich Tamas - Ian Barford Anna - Katrina Lenk Ilona - Martha Lavey Miklos - Yasen Peyankov
With: Katherine R. Foster, Max Grilly, Isabel Guzman-Barron, Christopher LaBove.
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