It’s said that Chekhov was always trying to get the Moscow Art Theater to produce Ivan Turgenev’s neglected classic A Month in the Country instead of his own new plays. Was this homage, self-deprecation, or payment of a debt? So much of what we find great in Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and the rest of the holy canon finds its origins in the earlier work. It’s uncanny, really: A Month in the Country, completed in 1850, already contemplates, as Chekhov would a generation later, the collapse of Russia’s idle aristocracy amid new money and peasant awakening. It pioneers a form of comedy we now call Chekhovian, in which no one is happy. It even investigates the intersection of those two ideas. And yet Chekhov lifted more than just Turgenev’s genre and themes. Broad swaths of plot are appropriated, whole casts of archetypes redeployed. Which is not to say Chekhov didn’t improve what he took; it’s an irony worthy of the great ironist that his plays have nearly completely eclipsed their chief inspiration.
So it’s useful, not to mention amusing, to get a look at the blueprint, which is what Classic Stage Company is providing in its sometimes lovely but overwrought revival. Directed by Erica Schmidt, it stars Taylor Schilling as the bored beauty Natalya and Peter Dinklage as the enamored writer Rakitin, engaged in an impossible game of romantic cat-and-mouse under the eyes of Natalya’s husband and everyone else on the estate. Though set in the 1840s it is, at times, shockingly modern, and not just because John Christopher Jones’s colloquial translation eliminates the floweriness and patronymics in favor of pith and a smattering of yeahs. Natalya is perhaps the first woman in Russian drama whose wealth and glamor so beguile the men around her that she nearly escapes the harsh control of a rigidly misogynistic society. As long as she keeps her wits about her, she can do what she likes; it’s only when she makes the mistake of falling in love — with Aleksey, the callow 21-year-old student hired to tutor her young son for the summer — that she is forced to trim her modern soul and bend to convention.
Everyone falls in love with Aleksey: not just Natalya and her ward, Vera (thus setting up an amusing bitchfest), but also most of the men. Turgenev’s joke is that this happens for no real reason; there’s not much to recommend the boy besides slim hips and swoopy hair. If this improbability makes A Month in the Country seem like a youth soap opera on the WB, that’s a telling comment on the resilience of the story line. It also speaks to Schmidt’s casting. That Mike Faist, a recent Newsie, is underpowered as Aleksey, is not really a big problem. But in the neurotic central roles, Schmidt has cast actors who seem overeager to push the limits of neurosis. Schilling, best known as Piper Chapman, the Connecticut deb serving time in the clink on Orange Is the New Black, looks smashing in Tom Broecker’s beautiful clothes; she reads onstage as a young Glenn Close, all vivid hauteur and secret rage. But she does not yet have enough craft to shape these elements toward the achievement of her character’s goals. She shows us the hummingbird emotional metabolism that drives such a personality, yet does not create a coherent personality in the process. Or if she does, it’s not the one Turgenev surely intended. As Natalya doubles down on her foolish infatuation and starts to lose control of the situation, she seems less confused and undone than vicious and bipolar.
Well, it’s an interpretation, or perhaps, unfortunately, a general instruction to the cast. Dinklage has the right romantic hair for the role and easily evokes Rakitin’s half-hearted struggle to free himself from Natalya’s net. But eventually he, too, is prodded (the director is his wife) into outbursts that a man of his ilk, tolerated by wealthy families because he is amusing and never inappropriate, could not afford. He is, after all, an obvious stand-in for Turgenev himself, and a model for Chekhov’s gallery of lovelorn men. (Dinklage played Vanya — also under Schmidt’s direction — in 2008, with Schilling as that play's bored beauty.) By the time he starts screaming in the second half, we have crossed the border from a comedy of mild self-loathing into bay-at-the-moon melodrama. You can make that choice: You can strip away the play’s social veneer to expose the twitching nerves beneath the skin. But it will no longer make sense as a product and representation of its time. (Only Thomas Jay Ryan, droll as the practical but useless doctor, is fully coherent.) If the gentry behaved this way in public, on vacation, the revolution would have come decades sooner.
I mean the Russian revolution; the revolution in drama that brought us all-innards-all-the-time took a bit longer. One of the things that followed from that change in theatrical style was the shortening of running times: How much underbelly can you stand? Jones’s translation, which Schmidt apparently had a strong hand in, runs at just over two hours; the play usually verges on three. The five acts have been vaguely condensed to two; Mark Wendland’s gorgeous unit set — a kind of jury box in a birch grove — makes it hard to tell the difference between one place or time and another. In any case, it’s too fast. The pauses, and thus the social air, are mostly sucked out of the room (or would be, if there were a room), and with them the time it takes actors and thus characters to listen, calculate, adjust.
It’s that absence more than anything that makes the production, otherwise sound, go bonkers, positing an idea of the Russian personality as a flicker of projections on a spinning mirror. I don’t think that’s what Turgenev had in mind, or what Chekhov would have admired so highly if he did. (The comedy of Vanya, for instance, is that the characters can’t even fall apart properly.) More interesting than psychopathology is the destructive behavior of normal people, and thus societies, whose frustrations and motivations are not always overt, let alone understood. Their tragedy, as Natalya puts it, is not in what’s present but in what’s missing: “We do not know who we really are.” For all its dark digging, that’s this production’s problem, too.
A Month in the Country has extended its run at Classic Stage Company through February 28.
*An earlier version of this review misidentified the Taylor Schilling character Natalya's name.