A Rushed Month in the Country

Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage in Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” at CSC. | JOAN MARCUS

Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage in Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” at CSC. | JOAN MARCUS

The Classic Stage Company has cut Turgenev’s five-hour “A Month in the Country” to 120 minutes, but nevertheless left us with a long stay in the woods, unfortunately not in the presence of very compelling people. Why director Erica Schmidt felt compelled to commission a new clunky version by the actor and writer John Christopher Jones is a mystery, even he acknowledging in program materials, “This is a very modern translation and I had to do it very fast.” (There is a great English version out there by no less than Brian Friel that I saw at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1992 starring Donal McCann, one of the most moving theatrical experiences of my life. Maybe the Irish are just more adept than Americans at capturing the character –– especially the sadness –– of the Russian spirit.)

CSC, a source of much theater pleasure over the years, is committed to having classic plays speak to us today. But it makes a mistake when it tries to contemporize the text and acting. Just as Russia is a very foreign country, so is the past.

CSC has a rare misstep in new translation of Turgenev classic

I was looking forward to seeing this play again given its history. It was written in 1850 but not allowed to be performed until 1872 due its scandalous subject matter: a married woman, Natalya (Taylor Schilling of “Orange is the New Black”), taking a sexual interest in a young man, her little boy’s 21-year-old tutor Aleksy (Mike Faist), while her contemporary Mikhail (Peter Dinklage) takes a sexual interest in her –– all in the presence of her dull, long-suffering husband, Arkady (Anthony Edwards).

The French would make a bedroom farce of it. But Turgenev wrote a comedy of manners where the laughter ought to arise out of how sadly these thwarted people lack self-awareness. Tragedy is easy. Idiots cause it every day. Comedy is seriously harder.

Schmidt lets many of her actors broadly mug through their roles in sit-com style –– notably Schilling as the love-starved mistress of the house and, as the doctor Shpigelsky, Thomas Jay Ryan (who was so fine as gay pioneer Harry Hay in “The Temperamentals”).

The exceptions are Dinklage, a great actor (“The Station Agent,” “Game of Thrones”) who is the director’s husband but comes across as being in a better version of the play, ably conveying the longing and pathos of unrequited love, and Faist, a veteran of the ensemble of newsboys in “Newsies,” who gives a restrained and nuanced portrayal of a boy becoming a man and entering the world of adult love. There are also some fine actors who do well with tiny roles –– Annabella Sciorra as Lizaveta looking for a ticket out of spinsterhood and Elizabeth Franz as Anna, Arkady’s mom.

It’s a very promising set by Mark Wendland –– all bleached wood in a simple, clean rectangular thrust playing area with an evocative birch forest background –– but the actors don’t light up the stage the way Jeff Croiter’s lighting design does.

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY | Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. | Through Feb. 22: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., Feb. 4 at 3 p.m. | $81 at classicstage.org or 212-352-3101 | Two hrs., with intermission