Turgenev's ' Fool' lights up Broadway

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  April 26, 2002 at 9:00 AM
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NEW YORK, April 26 (UPI) -- The 19th century Russian novelist-dramatist Ivan Turgenev may be best known in the theater for "A Month in the Country," but one of his long forgotten plays, "Fortune's Fool," is every bit as good and provides a wonderful Broadway vehicle for two great actors, Alan Bates and Frank Langella.

"Fortune's Fool" was rescued from oblivion by British adaptor Mike Poulton and performed for the first time in modern times in 1996 in Chichester, England, with Bates in the role of Kuzovkin. The play is having its American premiere in the form of Poulton's adaptation, now playing at the Music Box Theater under the direction of fabulously talented Arthur Penn.

Thanks to Poulton and Penn, returning to Broadway after 20 years of filmmaking, a truly great stage work has been restored to the theatrical repertory. Penn has fashioned a seamless production that is so fresh and luminous that it is difficult to believe that this is a 154-year-old play, a contemporary of Victorian drawing room dramas that often seem stilted and shallow when they are revived.

Turgenev wrote "Fortune's Fool" under the title "A Poor Gentleman" in 1848, a year after he had his first success with a sympathetic literary sketch about peasant life, "Khor and Kalinich." His play is not about peasants, however, but about the rich upper class that lived on big estates when they were not enjoying court life in St. Petersburg, a milieu that playwright Anton Chekhov was later to make his own.

These privileged families often had the odd relative or an impoverished friend living in a spare room in their estate mansions, and Kuzovkin is one of those. He is a destitute gentleman whose own claim to a vast estate has been tied up in litigation for years, forcing him to live out his life as a guest and court jester at the estate of a friend.

The friend has died and the estate has been inherited by his daughter, whom Kuzovkin has not seen since she was a child. Kuzovkin expects to be evicted when this young woman, Olga Petrovna, and her new husband, Paul, return to claim the estate, but he finds himself warmly received by them.

At the end of the first act, Kuzovkin is included in a lavish "welcome home" dinner for couple. But Tropatchov, an obnoxiously effete estate neighbor and troublemaker, plies Kuzovkin with wine and gets him to make a revelation that staggers the assembled company and makes him instantly persona non grata with Olga and especially Paul, who is a social climber.

Kuzovkin's difficulties are worked out in the second act, but not before the hypocrisy of all involved is revealed and a huge sum of rubles is passed to the penniless old man so he can secure his own estate. Turgenev handles this material in a humorous way without ever trivializing his deeply insightful observations of the cruelties of which humankind is capable.

Bates, back on Broadway since for the first time since his Tony Award-winning "Butley" 29 years ago, plays Kuzovkin as a man brimming with enthusiasm for life despite limiting circumstances that force him to toady to the rich and powerful in order to live as the gentleman he was brought up to be.

To watch him loose his control as wine loosens his lips is one of the most delicious, non-to-be-missed treats offered to Broadway theatergoer this season. He builds Kuzovkin's character detail by meticulous detail, creating tremendous sympathy for this man who has been down on his luck -- not just lately, but for a lifetime.

Langella's masterful portrayal of the malevolent Tropatchkov, who pretends to be Kuzovkin's friend although he secretly loathes him, is just as much fun to watch, especially as he takes over the role of host from Paul, who is unsure of his own place in his wife's household.

Langella's approach is different from Bates' incremental building of a role. He plunges into the role of Tropatchkov full blown as a character with a gusto that takes his audience along with him willingly for the whole nasty trip, including his abhorrent relationship with his toy boy Karpatchov, slimily played by Timothy Doyle.

Enid Graham is charmingly gracious and primly naïve as the heiress who remembers Kuzovkin's kindnesses to her as a child but is unable to accept him on any terms more intimate than that of an old friend. Benedick Bates, son of Alan Bates, makes a believable Paul, all too anxious to repair the neglected affairs of his wife's estate so that he can line his own pockets.

George Morfogen turns in his usual reliable performance as another estate neighbor who sympathizes with Kuzovkin, and Olga Pashalinski makes the most of her supporting role, that of the servant Praskovya who knows how to bend Olga to her own will.

This wonderfully absorbing drama is played out in settings cleverly devised by John Arnone to suggest a richly furnished old house that has resisted being transformed to the French style favored by fashionable Russians of the day. His rooms offer an inviting overhead view of ubiquitous Russian birches and inviting garden arbors.

Jane Greenwood's 1840s costumes are altogether satisfying in their subtle suggestions of the character of their wearers, as all good stage costumes should be, and a composer listed in the program only as Kramer has provided some enchanting original music that evokes the period and the mood of the play.

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