Ever wonder where New York’s theatrical aristocracy goes to play? Dianne Wiest has been known to grace the stage of CSC, a not-for-profit house that dependably finds her a juicy role to make her happy, quality creatives to support her, and maybe a little something to challenge her. Applied here, the formula showcases the two-time Oscar and Emmy winner in “The Forest,” a 19th century Russian classic by Alexander Ostrovsky with the kind of character roles that attract both established divas and rising stars like John Douglas Thompson, who gave a dazzling perf last year in “Othello.”
Companies dedicated to classic stage traditions would do well to investigate Ostrovsky’s social comedies (forget the tragedies), which mock both the self-indulgences of Russia’s upper classes and the absurd social pretensions of the up-and-coming merchant class that was busily snatching the land out from under them.
Just don’t expect to discover another Chekhov. While Ostrovsky was an obvious influence on the younger playwright, who shared his vision as a social critic, he wrote in a more blunt and direct style.
Self-consciously theatrical, it was at one time the definitive style of the Maly Theater, the great Russian company that Ostrovsky founded and which still flourishes today. And while both Kathleen Tolan’s adaptation and Brian Kulick’s helming carry that bite-the-stage style a bit too far here, a little bombast doesn’t hurt when a major character in the play is a hambone actor.
John Douglas Thompson, who followed up his fine Othello with another powerful turn this year in O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones,” plays this itinerant tragedian, who calls himself Gennady, with grand theatrical flair and great good humor. But for all the old-fashioned histrionics, thesp tempers the character’s flamboyant manner and sentimental excesses with just enough honest emotion to win him the adoring audience he craves.
In the play’s social context, though, the only audience who counts is Gennady’s aunt Raisa, a rich widow who fancies herself as a gracious Lady Bountiful, while hypocritically cheating her heirs out of their inheritance. As played by Wiest — with pursed lips, shrewd eyes, and a delicious air of girlish coquetry — the lady is an utterly enchanting monster.
The characters who orbit this foolish and funny creature are familiar types: the awkward swain, the silly young lovers, the fawning sycophants, the rapacious neighbor, and the long-suffering servants. And while none of them can stand up to the lady of the manor, most are played by journeymen actors (John Christopher Jones, Herb Foster, and George Morfogen among them) adept at catching their individual eccentricities.
Tech values tend to be high at CSC. This production is no exception.