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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 8, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
On Broadway: `Fortune’s Fool’
With the exception of "A Month in the Country,"
American theatergoers are not as familiar with the plays of Ivan
as they are with the more esteemed Russian playwright, Anton Chekov.
And although Turgenev’s 1848 play "Fortune’s Fool" (originally
titled "A Poor Gentleman") does not have a high ranking among
the best Russian dramatic literature, it is certainly destined to
gain some admirers.
Mike Poulton’s accessible adaptation (first produced in 1996), under
the direction of the American Arthur Penn, is primarily an arena for
sterling and unforgettable performances by Alan Bates and Frank
This treat alone makes the play a must see.
If the production, with sets that look as if they were constructed
hastily on the cheap, and a household of minor performances that reek
of summer stock, rarely suggests the atmosphere of old Russia or its
inhabitants, the story remains a gentle bittersweet charmer. The
characters are not only poignantly and humorously drawn, but also
played to perfection.
So what is there left to say about the lives of the gentry on a
estate where we know, from countless other Russian plays, novels,
and stories, the wealthy and the fatuous condescendingly preside over
the impoverished and the hoi polloi? That is until a revelation or
a revolution. The revelation is here alright, in Turgenev’s touchingly
moral story of Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin (Alan Bates), a forlorn
middle-aged man, who, tricked out of his inheritance and reduced to
penury, finds a charitable home among friends on the estate.
When recently married Olga Petrovna (Enid Graham) returns to the
after many years absence, with her husband Pavel Nikolaitch Yeletsky
(Benedict Bates), she is surprised to find there the kindly man she
was fond of as a child, who was, in fact, treated as a court jester
and fool by her late father. Barely tolerated by the staff, Kuzovkin
takes comfort in the companionship of another poor neighbor, Ivan
Ivanov (George Morgogen), with whom he plays chess. Kuzovkin’s hopes
to remain living in the estate are dashed with the arrival of Flegont
Alexandrovitch Tropatchov (Frank Langella), a wealthy but foppish
land-owner whose narcissism is second only to his pretensions of
and social superiority.
It is Tropatchov’s plan to humiliate Kuzovkin and prod him into making
a fool of himself once again. Urged to drink, and to tell how he lost
his estate, Kuzovkin not only shares his woes but the complex legal
matters concerning his inheritance. This is done in a lengthy,
incoherent monologue that is a masterpiece of delightful digressions,
masterfully acted in fits and starts by Bates. It concludes with a
revelation that will undoubtedly end his relationship with the new
masters of the estate, but will also surely prompt his leaving of
his long-time home.
A splendid actor, Bates, whose most recent appearance on the New York
stage was in "The Unexpected Man," is giving what can only
be described as a performance of a lifetime as the decent but
deceived Kuzovkin. Not to be outdone by anything so blatant as Bates’
subtleties, Langella offers a portrait of floridly embroidered
He comes on and stays on with the force of a regiment of Cossacks,
putting down all with the greatest of ease. It is a performance that
only Langella could carry off without being carried off.
Graham’s well-disposed deportment as Olga, a woman smart enough to
not be dominated or coerced by her husband’s misguided authority,
is perfect. As Pavel, the comely Benedict Bates is appropriately seen
as mostly nonplused by Flegont’s overbearing influence and destructive
designs. Timothy Doyle is slightly unctuous as Flegont’s friend,
Fish." Perhaps the most impressive supportive performance is by
Morfogen, as the loyal Ivan. If the shabbiness of the present
is all too apparent, the sublime acting of Bates and Langella is truly
dazzling. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
— Simon Saltzman
New York. $55 to $75.
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