Suffering Fools

Parental affection: Enid Graham and Alan Bates, in Fortune's Fool. (Photograph by Carol Rosegg.)

Mid-century Russia (nineteenth that is) comes to droll and wistful life in Ivan Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. Effectively adapted by Mike Poulton and imaginatively staged by Arthur Penn, this is old-style theater performed in exuberant fashion (now, alas, out of fashion) by a cast headed by Alan Bates and Frank Langella.

Bates plays Kuzovkin, a shabby-genteel parasite tolerated for decades on a great country estate now inherited by young Olga and her brand-new husband, Paul. Olga left the estate as an adolescent for St. Petersburg, and returns as a newlywed eager to resume old relationships and relume happy memories. Kuzovkin, embroiled for decades in a hopeless suit for possession of another estate, is overjoyed by the reunion with Olga, whom he, years ago, dandled and indulged with quasi-parental affection. She, too, is elated to see him again.

But Paul, who tries to bring order into the slovenly estate, is a problem, as is Tropatchov (Langella), the effete and arrogant neighboring landowner, a grandiose busybody and mischief-maker, trailed by his toady, Karpatchov. When these men and Ivanov, Kuzovkin’s self-effacing friend, get drunk together in a riotous scene, Kuzovkin makes a revelation that, true or false, wreaks harrowing and hilarious havoc.

Bates gives a masterly performance, brimming with controlled gusto, larger than life-size yet microscopically detailed. Langella would be equally good if only he could leave one centimeter of John Arnone’s apt scenery unchewed.

Benedick Bates (Alan’s son) is a convincingly distraught Paul, Enid Graham a splendidly torn Olga, and George Morfogen a touching Ivanov. In a good supporting cast, only Lola Pashalinski sticks out, with her crassly downtown antics. Unlike so much sham now usurping our stages, Fortune’s Fool is a genuine, professionally crafted, and cannily produced play.

Onscreen, The Graduate was a classic American movie, capturing the repressive atmosphere trembling on the verge of the societal explosions of 1968. Dazzlingly scripted, savvily directed, and starring an endearing Dustin Hoffman, a coolly sexy Anne Bancroft, and a radiantly innocent Katharine Ross, it became a self-renewing treasure.

The stage disaster of the same name, written and directed by the Brit Terry Johnson, who has injected a plethora of vulgar and leering cheap shots of his own, has further ballast to contend with. Worst are the three leads, seemingly handpicked for poor acting and utter charmlessness. As Benjamin, Jason Biggs perfectly combines gross overacting with ludicrous appearance. As Mrs. Robinson, Kathleen Turner proffers a lame parody of Tallulah Bankhead and looks, clothed or not, as alluring as Gertrude Stein. As Elaine, Alicia Silverstone suggests a supermarket checkout girl and acts commensurately: Deep emotion registers on her face as acute stupefaction. The others do well, but they cannot salvage a sinking ship.

The play’s sensibility is that of second-rate vaudeville, with a few morsels from the movie drowning like soggy croutons in a paste-thick soup. Rob Howell’s scenery is an exercise in smart-ass pseudo-cleverness, and Johnson’s direction is all draggy self-indulgence. But do not walk out before the last scene and thereby miss a monument to all-round ineptitude.

In drama, cerebration can work; witness Copenhagen. What doesn’t work is excogitation; witness 36 Views. The author, Naomi Iizuka, knows a thing or two about the art business, which, however, is not the same as the art of playwriting. She has an interesting idea: the parallel difficulties of telling real from fake in love and art. Her hero, Darius Wheeler, a shady wheeler-dealer of an art-gallery owner, falls for Setsuko Hearn, a university art historian, and she, reluctantly, for him. What brings them together is a Japanese ukiyo-e portrait in two versions, one or both of which may be inauthentic.

John Bell, Wheeler’s learned, polyglot young assistant, and Claire Tsong, his art-restorer friend, may have discovered an invaluable eleventh-century pillow book, or have they made it up? Wheeler’s love and Bell’s book are twin focal points for the enigmas of truth and semblance. This would be fine if Iizuka knew how to put engaging human flesh on the bones, and gripping dialogue into the mouths of her scheming and dueling idea skeletons. Her very title, based on the great Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, is supposedly reflected in the play’s 36 scenes, although what constitutes a scene is pretty arbitrary here.

Certainly the design team, deployed by the clever director Mark Wing-Davey, has, with one exception, worked wonders. Douglas Stein’s décor is based on rows of sliding panels, a cross between shoji screens and high-tech architectural design. This combines with Ruppert Bohle’s mysterious yet suggestive projections and David Weiner’s high-profile lighting into a kaleidoscopic vision in which disparate fragments eventually coalesce into a unified picture. But Matthew Spiro lets the Japanese soundscape blare overbearingly, punctuated by the merciless clangor of wood blocks (to echo woodblock prints in the play?), as exhausting as Iizuka’s frenzied elucubrations.

The cast is uneven. Stephen Lang is a provocative mixture of antithetical elements as Wheeler, and Liana Pai, though short on sensual appeal, is an otherwise credible Setsuko. Ebon Moss-Bachrach gets the idiot-savant aspect of Bell, but Elaine Tse is excessively grating as the truculent Claire. As a mystery woman, Rebecca Wisocky is smug and amateurish, but Richard Clarke makes the most of a befuddled academic. The play even introduces elements of kabuki, shouted Japanese, and eleventh-century visuals into its overweening mix. But lovers of kaleidoscopes, Rubik’s cubes, and jigsaw and other puzzles should have a field day.

Fortune’s Fool
By Ivan Turgenev; staged by Arthur Penn, starring Alan Bates and Frank Langella.
The Graduate
Starring Kathleen Turner, Jason Biggs, and Alicia Silverstone. 36 Views
By Naomi Lizuka.

Suffering Fools