Taylor Schilling (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) are the latest high-profile TV thesps to schlep down to the East Village to appear in one of Classic Stage Company’s cozy productions of classic plays. In a move that’s fairly radical for this company, the current star vehicle isn’t Chekhov, the house favorite, or even Shakespeare, but “A Month In the Country,” Turgenev’s delicious 1872 comedy of (genteel Russian) manners. Although John Christopher Jones’s translation projects the casual air of a modern sensibility, Turgenev’s ruminations on the joys and miseries of being in love have a timeless appeal.
It’s no wonder that small-screen thesps enjoy working in the intimate quarters of CSC’s 199-seat house. The three-sided seating puts the audience practically at eye level with the performers, so every facial expression can be seen and every well-modulated tone of voice can be heard. No theatrics are called for, since it’s almost like playing to a camera.
It is also the policy of the house, which has been under the canny artistic management of a.d. Brian Kulick for a dozen years, to keep the scenery from taking over the stage. (Costumes, however, and occasionally props, are allowed to be as elaborate as the budget will bear.) Mark Wendland keeps the faith here with a simple but stunning indoor/outdoor setting (suggested by a low dividing wall) of a gracious country estate. While the furnishings are minimal, the forest of birch trees painted on the back wall conveys a sense of serene affluence and well-being.
That serenity is shattered when love and all its messy complications invade the home where the lovely, volatile Natalya (Schilling) lives with her much older husband, Arkady Islaev (Anthony Edwards), their 10-year-old son, Kolya (Ian Etheridge), and 17-year-old ward, Vera (Megan West, very girlish). It seems that both Natalya and Vera have fallen in love with Aleksey (Mike Faist, very boyish), the handsome young man hired to tutor Kolya — and only Turgenev’s refined sense of high comedy can keep the situation from turning into high tragedy.
Believing “too much passion” to be a character flaw, Natalya resists her own passionate yearnings for the (unappealingly bland) young tutor, but heartlessly confides her forbidden feelings to her best friend, Rakitin (Dinklage), who is hopelessly in love with her. Although Natalya’s nuanced emotions register on Schilling’s expressive features like flashes of white-heat lighting, Rakitin’s misery imprints itself like an indelible tattoo on Dinklage’s face. Is it cruelty or the insensitivity of narcissism that makes her so oblivious to his pain?
Turgenev must have been a little in love with his capricious heroine, given the almost obsessive attention he pays to her erratic but fascinating psychology. For poor Rakitin, he has nothing but compassion. Helmer Erica Schmidt, who previously directed Dinklage, her husband, in a CSC table reading of “Uncle Vanya,” takes an intimate approach to her two leads, setting up their one-on-one scenes like closeups. While this tactic extracts an extremely soulful performance from Dinklage, whose huge, suffering eyes follow Natalya’s every move, and an extremely animated one from the vivacious Schilling, it tends to undercut the play’s ensemble framework.
Seasoned players like Edwards (as Natalya’s deaf-dumb-blind-and-stupid husband, Arkady), Elizabeth Franz (Arkady’s mother) and Annabella Sciorra (her companion) would disappear entirely upstage, were it not for Tom Broecker’s sumptuous costumes. Thomas Jay Ryan, however, does manage to make his voice heard as Shpigelsky, the cynical doctor who finds the family dynamics absurdly amusing.
It’s left to audiences (of Turgenev’s day, as well as our own) to look askance at the foibles of this classbound society, laugh at their obtuseness, and feel terribly, inexplicably sad for them.