The compassion and concern for character in the plays of Irish master Brian Friel (“Translations,” “Dancing at Lughnasa”) has led him to be rated alongside the greats of Russian drama. So expectations are high for this rare revival of his adaptation of Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons.” But despite plangent moments, detailed ensemble work and beautifully unified design, buzzy director Lyndsey Turner (“Machinal” on Broadway) stages a production that fails to make a case for the play as unjustly neglected, since it’s revealed to be more of a charmer than a drama.
The initial pivot is the return home from university of Arkady (hopeful and helpless Joshua James) with his staunchly nihilistic friend Bazarov (Seth Numrich). The latter is, as is his wont, supremely unimpressed by Arkady’s home life on the faintly dwindling estate ineffectually run by Arkady’s widowed father Nikolai (Anthony Calf) who has nonetheless found the time to have a child with his lower-class mistress Fenichka (Caoilfhionn Dunne). Bazarov sneers at the notion of romantic love and the sentimentality, as he sees it, of his own parents’ affection for him. All that is reversed when, against his will, he’s forced to rethink his views following the arrival of wealthy young widow Anna (a beautifully self-possessed Elaine Cassidy).
Add in aggrieved servants, pompous hangers-on and a visiting aged aristocrat (marvelously furious and batty Susan Engel) and you have all the standard ingredients of nineteenth century Russian stories. And indeed, as this one slowly unfolds, we’re presented with everything from family inheritances of all kinds, political idealism, marriages and misplaced desire to a duel. Which is where the problems start.
Neatly placed though it all is, it’s peculiarly familiar even to those who (like this reviewer) who don’t know the novel. The evening keeps reminding you of better examples, whether it be Turgenev’s own (superior) play “A Month in the Country,” Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” or “The Cherry Orchard” or Gorky’s masterpiece “Summerfolk.” The plot has strong moments — stolen kisses, bursts of idealism — but lacks theatrical shape or momentum. Shifting between characters works in a novel with space for thought and description of circumstances, but dialogue does little justice to either the wider themes or the events beyond the family homes, including the unseen typhus epidemic that has a determining effect on several characters.
The best performances add real texture. Anthony Calf chooses rapid speech to give dithering Nikolai unexpected and hugely welcome zest. His character and all his scenes are the richer for it. But Turner also displays a tendency to push characterizations too far. Fenichka is oddly presented as a kind of tragic heroine, yet has almost none of the lines that merit the approach. And while Tim McMullen is funny and touching as self-absorbed dandy Pavel, dressing him in so overstated a costume does too much work on his behalf. Too many characters arrive with all their characteristics on display, leaving them nowhere to go.
That tendency towards the overly literal is held in check by Rob Howell’s beautifully allusive set design. Although he uses a near identical diagonal stage footprint to his previous Donmar production with Turner (Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!”), his abstracted, suggestive set of colored wooden slats is notably versatile, offering spaces through which James Farncombe can shine light to immensely evocative effect. He provides a tender glow that complements the production’s finest moments, but even he can’t make the evening greater than the sum of its parts.