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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Of course that's not quite true if the theater you happen to be attending is the Music Box. I can't think of more fun to be had than watching Alan Bates as Kuzovkin and Frank Langella as Tropatchov playing verbal ping pong. Bates is deeply touching as well as funny. Langella is delightfully hateful (He disarmingly begins his Broadway Cares curtain call pitch with "Didn't you just hate me?"). Theirs is a match made in theatrical heaven and reason enough to catch Ivan Turgenev's Fortune's Fool during its limited Broadway run.
Turgenev's rarely produced tragi-comedy has been eclipsed by his more popular A Month In the Country and Mike Polton's easy-speaking new adaptation hardly tranforms it into a rediscovered treasure. However, it effectively freshens and sharpens the blend of drawing room comedy and serious drama. Director Arthur Penn, too long absent from Broadway, has seen to it that the two thespian heavyweights are supported by an able cast and that the audience is treated not just to a rarely seen play, but a rare evening of well-acted, lovely to look at old-fashioned theater -- entertaining, funny and, thanks to Mr. Bates' many-faceted portrait, genuinely moving .
The setting is a vast country estate with its resident aristocrats and their countless servants jolted out of their bored tranquility by the arrival of someone from the city. Things begin with a rather unpromising start -- a lot of bustling about and empty chatter from the downstairs sector of the Petrovna estate.
Enter a man with grisly hair and beard. His black coat looks a bit worse for wear. He doesn't seem to be one of the servants nor do his teddy bear persona and awkward mannerisms radiate the assurance of someone important. Yet, for all his shabbiness and uncertainty, he immediately lights up and commands the stage, and the play is off and running.
The man who's neither servant or master is in fact Kuzovkin (Alan Bates), an aristocrat whose own property has been tied up for years in a hopeless lawsuit. At one time "a sort of court jester" to the long dead owner of the estate, he has stayed on as a permanent guest -- the very model of a character type Turgenev developed into "the superfluous man." As we learn during Kuzovkin's chess game with his friend Ivan Kuzmitch Ivanov (George Morfogen), who does have a home but one that keeps him impoverished, he is anxious about the impending homecoming (of the heiress to the estate, Olga Petrovna (Enid Graham) and her new husband Paul (anglicized from Pavel and played by Bates' real life son , Benedick Bates). Having spent the last nine years with an aunt in St.Petersburg will she remember their warm and special relationship during her childhood? Will she, or her husband, want him to leave?
When Olga and Paul do arrive it seems as if Kuzovkin's fears were unfounded -- until the impromptu arrival of the nosey neighbor, Tropatchov (Langella), spectacularly self-confident and elegant in contrast to Kuzovkin. Tropatchov has his own "court jester", Karpatchov, or as he calls him, " Little Fish" (Timothy Doyle) in tow and, sensing an opportunity to have fun at the expense of Kuzovkin (whose poverty he disdains and whose noble birth he envies), he invites himself to lunch. This turns out to be a stag affair and a disaster. It culminates in Bates' brilliantly and humiliating drunken scene which leads to a revelation This slam-bang first act ending leaves it to the second act to explain the details of the unsettling secret and for Olga and Paul and Kuzovkin to deal with its consequences.
While that final fifteen minutes of act one provide the evening's high drama, the second act moves along filled with much insightful and incisive dialogue. Langella and Bates continue to be the main source of electricity. Since both performances are big enough to swallow up the scenery (which, incidentally is another feather in John Arnone's cap, as are the costumes in Jane Greenwood's), Mr. Penn has smartly directed the supporting cast to play their parts in a more subdued key. The standouts in making understated as satisfying as the showy are George Morfogen as the loyal Invanov and Timothy Doyle as Tropatchov, the yes- man who with few words and telling body language conveys how he identifies with Kuzovkin's desperate attempt to hang on to his dignity.
To conclude, a prediction. I'll bet my flea market silver samovar that both Bates and Langella will get get Tony nominations for the Best Actor slot, and that Bates may just be heading back to Great Britain with the prize tucked into his suitcase.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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