Corrections or additions?

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

Turgenev

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

Langella.

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

principal

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

Russian

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

estate

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

cultural

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,

increasingly

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

heartbreakingly

deceived Kuzovkin. Not to be outdone by anything so blatant as Bates’

subtleties, Langella offers a portrait of floridly embroidered

effeteness.

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,

"Little

Fish." Perhaps the most impressive supportive performance is by

Morfogen, as the loyal Ivan. If the shabbiness of the present

production

is all too apparent, the sublime acting of Bates and Langella is truly

dazzling. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Fortune’s Fool, Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street,

New York. $55 to $75.


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