Hang on to your ethics and any preconceptions of what classic Russian drama can be. A poor young man is having an affair with his dying employer’s wife. He is not only urged on by his mother to marry her once the husband succumbs, but to abandon another and younger woman to whom he has also pledged his undying love. To aid and abet her son in his plan to secure his future and his wealth, the devious mother prompts the desperate wife to hasten the demise of her husband by poisoning him. The scheme seems to work, except that the young man does not have the moral fiber to remain faithful once he is married and in charge of the family fortune. He proceeds to mistreat and ignore his new wife and seduce his step-daughter, who just happens to know how her father died.
No, this isn’t “Dallas” meets “Falcon Crest.” It is the core plot of renowned Russian author Lev (Leo) Nikolayevitch Tolstoy’s scarcely known and rarely produced play, “The Power of Darkness.” Inspired by a real trial of a peasant in the province where Tolstoy lived, the play was written in 1886 but ran into difficulty with the Russian censors, most likely because of a brutal and horrifying scene of infanticide. Although it failed to get the backing of the Tsar, it received its world premiere in Paris in 1888 and had subsequent productions throughout Europe. It was eventually produced in Russia in 1895. Joseph Adler appeared in a Yiddish language adaptation in New York 1904. The Theater Guild presented a softened and abridged English language version in 1920.
Jonathan Banks, the artistic director of the Mint Theater Company has again resurrected a long neglected but eminently worthy play. This one stands unique in classical Russian dramatic literature. It arrives as a nice adjunct to Tom Stoppard’s recent overview of philosophers and intellectuals in 19th century Russia, “The Coast of Utopia.” If Tolstoy will forever be remembered as the author of two great novels, “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace” (both adapted for film and stage), there was a stage adaptation of his story, “Strider: The Story of a Horse,” which appeared on Broadway in 1980. To the best of my knowledge, Tolstoy authored only one play, “Redemption,” which opened on Broadway in 1918.
Despite its three-hour length, “The Power of Darkness” goes through its melodramatic convolutions with a concentrated passion and a relentless fervor that makes it hard not to become fully committed. Tolstoy’s deep insight into human nature is felt in each of its earthy characters. The plot focuses on the compulsively driven machinations of Nikita (Mark Alhadeff), as he satisfies his lust at whim and selfishly pursues a better life. We watch him justify his amoral and adulterous behavior in a progression of scenes that are as emotionally harrowing as they are vividly demonstrative. The darkness of Nikita’s unredeemable behavior, mostly as a sexual predator, is shocking and comes in the face of a family and in the midst of a community of presumably pious Russians. No one fails to bow and pray before the religious icons on the walls with every entrance, just as no one fails to down as much vodka as the occasion permits.
Will Nikita get his comeuppance only after he has succeeded in ruining the lives of those he has hurt and betrayed? Rest assured that it isn’t going to come with the exposure of his sins for Tolstoy is obsessed with spiritual awakening and the potential of man to have a change of heart through a resurrection of conscience. The evidence of Tolstoy as a profound moralist penetrates but does not intrude in this play filled with the failings of common people, the details and routines of their daily life.
No one can blame Alhadeff for eliciting our contempt as he validates to himself his cruel, heartless, insensitive behavior in every scene. Angela Reed is a bundle of desperation and despair as Anisya, whose hate for her husband, Pyotr (Peter Bretz), is matched by her hopelessly rash and misguided love for Nikita. But it is Nikita’s mother, Matryona, given an insidiously veiled portrayal by Randy Danson, who takes the cake for pure Machiavellian deviltry. Under Martin Platt’s firm directorial guidance (he also did the adaptation), a large cast defines the temperaments of the times and the place with credibility.
Purists may take exception to the translation that occasionally makes the dialogue sound perhaps more crude and scabrous than it was originally. But who knows? What matters is that the play transcends the depressing aspects of its story to invoke Tolstoy’s concern for the absolution of our sins.
Especially fine among the support players are Steve Brady, as Nikita’s uncomplicated and religious father, who sees through his son’s despicable behavior; Jeff Steitzer, as Mitritch, a resolutely stubborn old laborer; Anne Letscher and Jennifer Bissell, as the older and younger step-daughters; and Letitia Lange, as Marina, the orphan seduced and abandoned by Nikita.
Bill Clark’s rustic setting, the interior of a large peasant hut, is effortlessly changed into a yard, threshing barn, and root cellar, and Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes suggest the ambiance and the lack of affluence of mid-19th century peasantry. Jeff Nellis’ expert lighting keeps the lights on some pretty dark doings. This is an opportunity to see an engrossing play fueled not only by the power of Tolstoy’s theme but empowered by a rigorously conscientious production. The Power of Darkness though not recognized as being among the best in the Russian canon, has every right to claim a place there. HHH
“The Power of Darkness,” through Sunday, October 28, The Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street (third floor). 212-315-0231.