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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE FOREST
at CSC

INTO THE WOODS
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Dianne Wiest and John Douglas Thompson/ Ph: Joan Marcus

What secrets lurk in the dark woods? None so surprising as those in the hearts of the village’s staid citizenry, according to Alexander Ostrovsky’s all-but-forgotten comedy about life in the hinterlands of 19th-century Russia, currently being revived by the Classic Stage Company.

As a well-to-do widow of a certain age, Raisa Pavlovna (Dianne Wiest) is nicely set up for life, reveling in her respectability, contemplating good works, and directing the lives of her dependents and hangers-on. This latter includes marrying high-school dropout Bulanov (Adam Driver) off to her niece, Aksyusha (Lisa Joyce), who is in love with Pyoter (Quincy Dunn Baker), the son of Raisa’s lower-class neighbor, to whom she sells off parcels of land when she needs cash.

But underneath the veneer of rectitude that Raisa religiously maintains lurks unacknowledged hypocrisy: Her concern for her household amounts to despotic control, her obsessing over her charities masks miserliness, and her propriety barely conceals her May-December longing for the callow Bulanov. As luck (or Ostrovsky) would have it, she’s just trying to assuage her conscience about disinheriting her long-lost nephew Gennady (John Douglas Thompson), when he, a broke, disreputable actor, encounters fellow trouper Arkady (Tony Torn) in the woods near her estate and determine to pay her a visit. Despite their long separation, Gennady knows enough of his aunt to pretend to be a retired military man accompanied by Arkady as his valet so that they’ll be deemed proper enough to enter Raisa’s decorous home; but little does he realize how much acting is already going on within that house.

Sure, with its cast of lavishly costumed provincial 19th-century Russians, The Forest looks like Chekhov; in this translation by playwright Kathleen Tolan, it sounds much like Chekhov; in its serio-comic intermixing of peasants, aristocrats, and everyone in between, it often feels like Chekhov – but the resemblance is largely superficial, however inevitable the comparison may seem.

Ostrovsky, who began writing plays in the 1840s, a generation before Chekhov, is credited with being the first great Russian dramatist – and the first to show commoners onstage – so the Classic Stage Company’s revival has historical, as well as histrionic appeal. That said, The Forest is a mixed bag. The cumbersome introductions to the numerous characters and plot threads bog down several of the opening scenes, the Shakespearean echoes (accentuated by the actors’ quoting directly from the Bard) are often awkward, and the machinations required to bring the play to resolution are unconvincingly facile.

Nonetheless, once the play settles in to its period groove, the character-driven comedy offers many genuinely funny moments, especially as Raisa strives to disguise her desires or Gennady brings a breath of ersatz glamour and gallantry into his aunt’s stuffy household. Wiest helps by playing the romantic pangs of midlife love with a deadpan exasperation that makes the most of Raisa’s increasingly unsubtle hints to the unctuous but obtuse object of her affection. And Thompson makes full comic use of his bravura tragedian, aided and abetted by Torn’s more earthbound Arkady. Even if Ostrovsky doesn’t give profound depths to his characters, nor does he let them lapse into simple stereotypes. And while his comedy isn’t as universal – or as moving – as Chekhov’s, it’s not without a certain compassion even for the self-deceiving Raisa, even as it criticizes her selfishness.

 

 


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