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A Month in the Country

Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage                                                                    Photo: Joan Marcus

                      by Dierdre Donovan

Small-screen stars Peter Dinklage and Taylor Schilling bring high-voltage to Ivan Turgenev’s Month in the Country at Classic Stage Company’s latest production.  And those who want to see these luminaries up-close and personal now have their chance on this intimate stage in the East Village.  Now running through February 22nd, this show, though pedestrian in its general execution, has been playing to a near-capacity house.  So those who don’t want to be left out in the cold (and without a ticket in hand) should book their seats to this seldom-staged play in New York.

Helmed by Erica Schmidt (real-life spouse of Peter Dinklage), this production lacks the frisson of CSC’s first-rate Shakespeare and Chekhov offerings of past seasons.  Turgenev (1818-1883) is widely viewed as a second-tier playwright when compared to literary heavyweights like Chekhov and the Bard.  But Turgenev does have his unique theatrical texture and, if not as influential as the aforementioned, he’s surely not to dismissed for those who want to get a taste of Russian comedy right before Chekhov stepped in and greatly darkened the genre.

When it comes to a picturesque production, this staging is tops.  Mark Wendland’s set is easy on the eyes.  Set in the summer at the beginning of the 1840s at Arkady’s Russian estate, Wendland creates a realistic backdrop of birch woods and the interior of a dacha with simple but handsome furnishings.  Tom Broecker’s period costumes--all crinolines, satin, and fine cloth--are a sight to behold.  And with Jeff Croiter’s soft wash of lighting, the entire set comes into sharp focus during this show, which clocks in at just over 2 hours.  In the world of this play, there is a place for everything, and everything has a place.

If the set works well, the acting ensemble is competent with a few standouts.  True, Schilling and Dinklage will be the main reason many will leave their cozy homes to make the trek down to this East Village institution.  But once there, you will likely find that other actors are watch able.  In fact, Elizabeth’s Franz’s Anna is well-cast as Arkady’s mother.  Her Anna brings the old world philosophy squarely to the fore, and when the romantic waters grow murky for her married grown-up son, she becomes the voice of reason and his moral compass.  Another standout is Thomas Jay Ryan as the country doctor Shpigelsky.   Ryan infuses just the right amount of vinegar into his Shpigelsky, which gives the character his requisite pungency.  Dinklage, as Rakitin, doesn’t disappoint.  Dinklage, once again, proves that he’s a character actor with a range that keeps expanding and expanding.  Watching his strong performance as Natalya’s spaniel-like friend and would-be lover begs the question:  What can’t this gifted screen actor do?  And what New York stage will he land on in the future?  Schilling, who is making her New York stage debut, portrays Natalya with sensitivity.  She may not capture all of her character’s psychological demons, but her classically beautiful features make her look like a Royal Doulton figurine come to life.  Indeed Schilling tends to upstage everybody in her role as the young pretty wife who’s married to a much older man—and then desperately falls in love for the young tutor of their son Kolya (played by the talented and adorable Ian Etheridge).

Okay, this Month in the Country has its flaws.  But, strangely, this 19th-century work tends to resist many a good director’s earnest efforts.  In fact, Scott Ellis helmed a lukewarm revival with Helen Mirren (as Natalya) and F. Murray Abraham (as Shpigelsky) back in 1995 at New York’s Criterion Center that critics swung their brickbats at.  So perhaps Turgenev is just a playwright who should be staged on his merits alone—and let the lumps fall where they will. 

To borrow a phrase from an interview that was included in my press packet, V. S. Pritchett praised Turgenev for his “profound sense of presence” lurking at the edges of his work.  Yes, Turgenev possesses a rare quality that few other playwrights achieve and, whether one finds him on the page or stage, must be viewed in his own right.

The real take-away from A Month in the Country at the CSC is actually seeing—and enjoying--Schilling and Dinklage in a live stage performance in New York.  Also it’s an ideal opportunity to become more acquainted with Turgenev’s dramatic canon. 

That said, one can only exit this current performance richer, recognizing that plays don’t necessarily need the probity of Hamlet or the dark psychological layers of a Chekhov comedy to register a truth about the human condition.  “The heart of another is a dark forest,” wrote Turgenev in his novel The Duellist.  That rings true for the bewildered characters in this play as well.

Through February 28nd.
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, East Village
For more information and tickets, visit or by calling (212) 352-3101 / (866) 811-4111.
Running time:  2 hours: 15 minutes with one intermission.