Helen Mirren is a Great English Actress. This entitles her to certain privileges that would be presumptuous for ordinary actresses to assume.
If an ordinary actress, say, were to play Natalya Petrovna, the leading role in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country," a wealthy woman whose inconstant heart makes everyone around her miserable, she might be required to give some indication of being Russian. She might be expected to convey some of the pathos beneath the comic surface.
But with a Great English Actress, it is enough that she deliver the comic lines with brilliant timing, that she invest even a pause with great significance and that she have a tremendous sense of presence.
Mirren is so skilled that she is riveting even with her back to us. Given all this, wouldn't it be churlish to expect that she be emotionally convincing as well? As a fervent Anglophile, I will be no such churl.
Mirren's presence has inspired the large and gifted cast. If their work represents a gallimaufry of styles, it is a happy contrast to the lugubrious way in which Russian plays are generally done.
Ron Rifkin plays a friend of Natlya's husband who is smitten with her. He is well bred enough not to have scruples about living off her husband as he pursues his friend's wife. Rifkin projects the coolness and the insouciance, if not the aristocratic aloofness. Byron Jennings could not convey better the foolishness or the pathos of the husband. F. Murray Abraham is funny, if a bit too vulgar, as a matchmaking doctor.
The most exciting performances are by Kathryn Erbe, as Natalya's ward Verochka, and Alessandro Nivola, as Verochka's tutor, with whom the aging Natalya falls heedlessly in love. Erbe and Nivla make the innocence of the two heartbreakingly believable.
Whatever one's cavils, this is an enthralling, deeply entertaining production.
How remarkable that it has taken until now for Helen Mirren, ranked among Britain's grandest actresses and one of nature's Cleopatras, to make her New York debut. It came, and came triumphantly if belatedly, in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country," last night at the Roundabout Theater.
She was playing Natalya Petrovna, the bored, spoilt and frustrated heroine of this translucent, 145-year-old comedy of Russian manners and the disruptive power of love.
A woman of certain years, and perky despair, possessing both a husband and a meek puppy-dog of an admirer to pass the idle time, suddenly falls headlong in love with her son's tutor, a young man barely half her age.
The tutor, gauche and socially inferior, also strikes fire in the tender emotions of Natalya's 17-year-old ward - and the two women unexpectedly find themselves rivals. It all ends as unhappily as it should - with everyone leaving everyone else, so often the way of Russian plays of the heart.
The admirer goes, the tutor goes, and even the girl leaves to make a marriage of little convenience with a middle-aged, wealthy and unprepossessing neighbor, an alliance engineered with the connivance of the local rapscallion of a doctor. Natalya is left with only memories of what might have been memories.
It's a lovely play, suffused with psychological nuance emotions left slightly equivocal, words left unsaid. Significantly, Frederick Ashton's masterly ballet version of the story is truer to its spirit than most productions of the actual play.
The present new translation by Richard Freeborn sounds gracefully idiomatic, while the gorgeously imaginative setting by Santo Loquasto, the elegant costumes by Jane Greenwood, and the sun-dappled lighting by Brian Nason could hardly be improved on.
But the inexperienced Scott Ellis' unsophisticated staging, despite the quality of some of the individual performances, is coarse. It pushes, prods, nudges and altogether lacks cultivation.
F. Murray Abraham, excellent as he already is, suitably curbed by a strong directorial hand, could have offered an infinitely more convincing Doctor than the present raffish caricature.
Ron Rifkin, as Rakitin, Natalya's refined, adoring but Platonic lover, might never have cut the figure that enabled Michael Redgrave to make the role his own, but could have been encouraged to be a little less pedestrian in voice, gesture and manner.
Alessandro Nivola offers an appealing Belyaev, the young tutor, even if he is permitted to appear overconscious of his charms, but Kathryn Erbe makes little of the infatuated ward, Verochka, and her sad graduation into womanhood. Much better are Byron Jennings as the befuddled husband and John Christopher Jones as Verochka's blundering suitor.
Nevertheless the shining virtue of the evening belongs to Mirren, who carries the whole play around as if it were some delicious, personal bauble.
She stresses the comedy far more than any other Natalya I can recall, and she resolutely refuses to perform the role as if it were a dialect of Chekhov. Yet equally, when her emptiness stands revealed even to herself, she manages a thrust of pain that, in its domestic dimension, proves sharply, cruelly poignant.
Turgenev - who claimed that Rakitin was a self-portrait - was fond of describing a Russian character he termed "the superfluous man." Mirren's Natalya is the superfluous woman - that is Natalya's comic tragedy, and Mirren's dazzling star-turn.
Isaiah Berlin once described Ivan Turgenev as "the least vain of famous authors." When, in 1872, a Moscow company decided to give his "Month in the Country" its first stage production, 22 years after it had been written, Turgenev was pessimistic. Audiences, the great novelist said, will find it tedious, and they did. Seven years later no one could have been more surprised than Turgenev when the comedy was well received in its St. Petersburg premiere. Turgenev was grateful but, with some reason, still skeptical.
It wasn't until after the 1909 production by the Moscow Art Theater ensemble, directed by Stanislavsky and Moskvin, that "A Month in the Country" came to be recognized as a classic theatrical work in its own right. That is, as something more than the forerunner of Chekhov's great comedies, which appeared toward the end of the century and helped put the Moscow Art Theater on the map.
Yet "A Month in the Country" remains one of the most difficult plays in the modern canon to stage in a way that achieves the luxuriant sadness and bitter comedy that are on the printed page. When the staging fails to measure up, tedium stalks this play like a bill collector.
That's what is happening at the Criterion Center, where the Roundabout Theater Company's new production opened last night. The cast is headed by Helen Mirren, Ron Rifkin and F. Murray Abraham. The director is Scott Ellis, the man responsible for the Roundabout's hit production of "She Loves Me," and the scenic design is by the estimable Santo Loquasto. With so much talent going for it, this "Month in the Country" still seems like two.
The time is a summer in the 1840's. The place is the Islaev estate where, in the course of several days of privileged lassitude, Natalya Petrovna, a beautiful, bored wife and mother, suddenly acknowledges herself to be passionately in love with her son's young tutor. Natalya Petrovna is neither foolish nor cruel. Yet in her halfhearted, self-absorbed attempts to seize happiness, she wrecks not only her own life, but also those of her innocent, 17-year-old ward, Vera, and her safely honorable, longtime suitor, Rakitin.
Why should such characters be important? V. S. Pritchett suggests that "their fate is corporate," being the fate of Russia itself.
"A Month in the Country" is a comedy of half-measures, of firm resolves abandoned even before they're forgotten, sometimes, it seems, within a single speech. It's about the routine of dailiness that soothes, but that can also be responsible for desperate, unpremeditated acts of destruction. Most importantly, it's about "the calamitous effects of love" when surrendered to completely, if only briefly.
There's even less of anything resembling a conventional narrative in "A Month in the Country" than there is in Chekhov. No exterior crises threaten. It's a comedy of character revealed so obliquely, and in talk so deceptively small, that the ultimate consequences should astonish, no matter how well one knows the work.
The astonishments at the Criterion Center are mostly negative. Ms. Mirren so underplays the strong-willed Natalya Petrovna that there's never any awareness of the profound nature of her infatuation for the tutor, and at the end, no feeling of her loss. Ms. Mirren's performance is bigger and somewhat more animated than the one she gave last year in an entirely different London production of "A Month in the Country." Yet the effect still seems small.
This might be the result of her dread of overstatement. It could also be that those of us who admire her work in the close-ups of movies and television (the "Prime Suspect" series) have difficulty actually seeing her on the stage, where she's in a continuous long shot. The camera adores her. With a slight change of expression, she can look beautiful one minute and ravaged the next. Her fine, melancholy eyes reveal a succession of contradictory feelings. Onstage here she's a single, somewhat aloof personality who behaves in mysterious ways.
Watching this production is like viewing "A Month in the Country" through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything remains distant, chilly, removed and not very well integrated. Though the Criterion stage is not overly big, the ensemble scenes of family and friends, when they gather in the Islaev drawing room, give the impression of being spread out. There is no sense of the community life of this estate, possibly because the actors themselves are still evolving their own community.
The production is so lethargic that the play doesn't seem to begin until Mr. Abraham's arrival as Shpigelsky, the doctor, a closet bomb-thrower who acts the jester to make his way with these noble folk. Mr. Abraham seems to be in an entirely different play from Ms. Mirren and the others, but at least he's active. Mr. Rifkin gives a good reading of the faithful Rakitin, a role that becomes somehow diminished by Ms. Mirren's treatment of him even when Natalya Petrovna means to be sincere.
Two performances stand out. Kathryn Erbe is exceptionally fine as the young, sweetly bewildered Vera, whom the jealous Natalya Petrovna drives into a loveless marriage. Though John Christopher Jones is onstage only for a couple of scenes, he effectively steals the play as "the fat, stupid, pompous" landowner who wins Vera's hand by default. He's the play's burlesque element, briefly hilarious and welcome. This also says something about the imperfect balance within the production.
Making his Broadway debut as Aleksei, the tutor, is Alessandro Nivola, who was splendid earlier this season in the Long Wharf Theater's production of "Paddywack." This performance seems to have been directed to emphasize the tutor's generic youth and vigor. Virtually unseen is Aleksei's particular intellect and code of honor.
Also effective is Gail Grate, who plays the family governess. In the production's most satisfyingly brutal scene, almost a coup de theatre as it's written, she's happy to be wooed and won by the doctor as he pours out his loathing for the gentry they both serve.
Mr. Loquasto's scenic design initially looks clean, spare and evocative. That's until the bleached wooden ceiling of the Act I set lugubriously swings down (it's hinged at the back) to become a hillside in Act II. Not only is the effect needlessly heavy, but the playing area thus formed is so steeply raked that the audience is likely to pay more attention to the actors' safety than to anything they are saying.
"A Month in the Country" isn't staged so often that you can afford to pass up even a seriously flawed production. But you might want to read it first to find out what it's all about.
Helen Mirren has always seemed such a levelheaded, intelligent, capable sort of adventuress. So when she goes off-which she does, she definitely does, in Scott Ellis’s lanky and skittish and intoxicating production of “A Month in the Country” at the Roundabout- well, you simply have to see how far the woman goes.
Mirren, who would be a certified heroine in these parts if she had done nothing but the English “Prime Suspect” TV series, has finally made her Broadway debut. Let’s keep her. She’s playing Natalya Petrovna, lady of the 1840’s Russian estate in what Ivan Turgenev knowingly called his “novel in dramatic form.”
“What’s the use of intelligence if it doesn’t entertain?” the restless Natalya asks as she – outrageously and mortifyingly – loses her sophisticated heard over her ward’s young tutor. Indeed. And Mirren is far from the only smart diversion in this treat, presented in the exuberantly conversational –if not especially poetic – Richard Freeborn translation that won her praise last year in London.
Ellis, best known as a musical director (“She Loves Me”), appreciates the Turgenev as psychological farce. Real emotions are slammed around instead of comic doors. We marvel at how this could have been written in 1850, a decade before Chekhov was even born, and wish we could have been at the meetings where the censors kept it unstaged for years.
The setting is definitely Chekovian, though the melancholy shadows of social change are hovering at a greater distance. A family idles in privilege and birch trees. The friend – Ron Rifkin’s achingly bemused Rakitin – is in love with his sweet friend’s beautiful wife. A doctor – F. Murray Abraham’s endlessly self-dramatizing Shpigelsky – visits. French is gaudily spoken. Boredom is discussed at length.
Natalya loves her husband (Byron Jennings as an endearing bumbler) and their friend without conspicuous inner conflict. But she has fallen, hard, for the unfinished young tutor (the appealing, if perhaps a bit too contemporary Alessando Nivola) who has been there a month. Of course, her ward (the believably innocent Kathryn Erbe) adores him too.
Ellis likes energy, which is lovely, though he has characters overusing their hankies so much the husband’s “I’m no Othello” comment takes on strange significance. Santo Loquasto’s elegant indoor setting is frozen in vanishing-point perspective and draped with birch-white lace throws. When the triangular ceiling drops, however, it turns into a steeply raked garden walkway upon which these people – especially the young ones – dash up and down with glee.
When Natalya goes after the young man, she, too, starts running about, only she looks preposterous. We feel for her in her newfound passion, but – imagine a woman trying to squeeze into a girl’s dress – her unseemliness makes us wince.
And here is Mirren’s gift. Cast considerably older than the 29-year-old described by the playwright (and looking a bit Little Bo Peep in Jane Greenwood’s costumes). Mirren is unafraid to be completely foolish, with mood swings so extreme she seems to have devils whispering in her ears. This is no ethereal Natalya, but a woman with sharp features, a pretty good head and wildly unpredictable demons.
Turgenev wrote people who war their internal monologues on the outside, and hers are so contradictory she practically speaks in tongues. Mirren’s Natalya cries out in gestures of grand heartbreak then abruptly switches to cut-the-crap mode. She pitifully hugs the cushion the tutor had sat upon, then tosses it away with a get-serious-girl vengeance. The effect is comical and tragic; masks actually seem to fly on and off her face. She goes from mother figure to calculating rival in an hysterical blink. But we believe, ultimately, that the loss she endures is profound.
These are wealthy people who had sad childhoods, and the memories are as badly hidden as the books and clutter tucked under the fine furniture. Rifkin’s doting Rakitin is especially touching. Abraham acts each word out as if demonstrating sign language, but he’s amusingly vain about it.
We know we can trust a production that cares enough to cast Rocco Sisto, Helen Stenborg and John Christopher Jones in tiny but important roles. The Broadway season officially ends next week. But things are looking up.
After the first scene of "A Month in the Country," the ceiling of a drawing room on a well-appointed country estate lowers to become a severely raked garden where several characters meet. The moderato scene-change draws applause; it's not quite the descent of the spaceship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," but you get the idea. That applause is as well-earned as anything else in a production whose efficiency is its chief asset, not to mention the prime suspect in a production that is almost always entertaining but never involving.
"A Month in the Country" stars Helen Mirren reprising the leading role of Natalya Petrovna, which she played last year in London: A bored, wealthy woman infatuated with her innocent ward's cute tutor, only to become the girl's rival. Written in 1850, the play famously foreshadows Chekhov's comedies, which of course weren't comedies at all, but exposes of the indiscreet boredom of the bourgeoisie.
Turgenev surely wasn't above giving the patrons a few chuckles. To the character of Shpigelsky, the scheming, incompetent doctor played broadly and charmlessly by F. Murray Abraham, the playwright gave two surefire monologues. In the first scene, Natalya goads him into delivering the latest gossip from town, only to be disappointed in the results. And after the intermission, he delivers what ranks among the most hilariously inapt marriage proposals ever written: "I'm getting old and my cook is always stealing from me," he tells his intended. "A wife is soft wax in a good husband's hands."
Nevertheless, if Natalya's feelings for the tutor Belyaev (Alessandro Nivola) should never be misread for love -- certainly not the love proffered her by the smitten hanger-on Rakitin (Ron Rifkin) -- they do conceal an emptiness that must be felt if the play is to have any weight.
Yet what Mirren and director Scott Ellis have conspired to deliver here is a good old-fashioned star turn, wrapped in a boulevard comedy. Yes, there's plenty of technique in evidence on the stage; however familiar her films and TV projects, Mirren is no interloper seeking validation on a Broadway stage. Still, she does a double take that would make Bob Hope proud, and Natalya's self-deprecating asides are tossed off as if to tell the audience she doesn't take any of this seriously, and neither should we. It's a larger than life-size performance in a play that demands a human scale.
The lightness of tone is all but bleached by Nivola, whose blank Belyaev puts one in the mind of Kato Kaelin, and the pouting Kathryn Erbe, an otherwise striking actress, at sea as Verochka, the girl who really does love him.
Smaller roles are better filled: Byron Jennings, defiantly dignified as Natalya's irrelevant husband; the elegant Gail Grate as Shpigelsky's intended; and an abashed John Christopher Jones as a boorish neighbor.
Jane Greenwood's costumes, period-perfect as always, are not always flattering to the star. The set, blond and gauzy, surrounded by the inevitable birch grove, is indeed striking, but what one really remembers is Brian Nason's scalding light scheme: bold, blazing yellows that burn into a bleeding, fiery sunset during the scene in which Natalya tries to convince Belyaev (and herself, no doubt) that she's in love with him. How strange, to have the air literally turn red with passion when the center of the show throws off so very little heat.