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
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
For more information and tickets, visit www.classicstage.org or by
calling (212) 352-3101 / (866) 811-4111.
Running time: 2 hours: 15 minutes with one intermission.