The New Yorker
The Theatre: Property Values
Bad behavior in Russia's ruling class
April 15, 2002
By Nancy Franklin
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.

Turgenev's little-known 1848 play "Fortune's Fool," now at the Music Box in an adaptation by Mike Poulton, has also been little known under two other titles, "One of the Family" and "A Poor Gentleman." But the current title resonates the most, because the play has to do with the way that both meanings of the word "fortune"—fate and finances—hinge and impinge on each other. Set at a Russian country estate on the day that its young mistress, Olga Petrovna (Enid Graham), along with her new husband, is coming back for the first time in nearly nine years to take possession of her childhood home, the play begins with the usual rushing around of bossy servants. Into the hubbub walks Kuzovkin (Alan Bates). He is a man with a vaguely proprietary air, but it's unclear whether he's a gentleman or a servant; his calm manner suggests that he doesn't have a job to do, and yet he's shabbily dressed, in a black frock coat that has seen better days. As he waits for Olga Petrovna, he finishes a game of chess with his neighbor, Ivanov (George Morfogen, on parole from "Oz"), and in his conversation we hear traces of both the slavishness and the sense of entitlement that form his character. When Ivanov wonders whether they should get out of the servants' way, Kuzovkin says, "They are only the servants, never forget we are the gentlemen." But he has, we discover, been living on the charity of Olga Petrovna's family for thirty years. He is concerned that her new husband may throw him out, and he hopes that Olga Petrovna, with whom he seems to have a bond that goes beyond what is stated in the play—he remembers precisely how old she was, down to the month, when her mother died and she went to live with an aunt in St. Petersburg—will speak up for him if need be.

The mystery of the exact nature of his connection to Olga Petrovna deepens when she and her husband, Pavel Yeletsky (Benedick Bates, son of Alan) arrive and she greets Kuzovkin as Vassily Petrovitch, even though his name is Vassily Semyonitch. He tells Ivanov that the mixup means nothing, but we can't help noticing that Petrovitch and Petrovna are intriguingly similar. Still, the real drama, and the comedy, begins not with the arrival of the newlyweds but with the arrival of the estate's nosy, mischief-making neighbor, Tropatchov (Frank Langella), who flounces in uninvited—if someone of Langella's Brobdingnagian stature can be said to flounce, and, based on the evidence, he can—in order to check out the new owners. Tropatchov is both a clever observer of the social mores of the landed gentry and an "infamous, fatuous fop," as Kuzovkin later calls him, given to dispensing insincerities such as "My worst fear, my nightmare, is that you'll find us all so very dull—so very, very dull, and you'll scurry away back to Petersburg, flippety floppety like a pair of little gray rabbits." (He could be the love child of Gore Vidal and Dame Edna.) For the rest of the play, which is directed by Arthur Penn (working on Broadway for the first time in twenty years), it is almost unnecessary for anyone else to appear on the stage with Langella and Bates, so completely do they dominate the evening. (Benedick Bates, who makes his Broadway début in this play, is taller than his begetter but nevertheless falls under his shadow here.) Just as their characters represent the gamut of the negative qualities of the ruling class—Tropatchov, with his smart red jacket and smart tongue, personifying energetic, destructive indolence, and Kuzovkin, with his supplicative, shambling manner, personifying passive, pathetic indolence—Langella and Bates seem to use up all the acting possibilities in the play as they goad and react to each other.


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Langella and Bates square off in "Fortune's Fool."

In a drunken scene, questions are raised about Olga Petrovna's paternity (a scene that has as its highlight a long and deliberately tedious discourse by Kuzovkin about being robbed years before of the estate that was rightfully his, and the resulting Dickensian, or Gogolian, lawsuit), and, given that we are in mid-nineteenth-century Russia, questions of property are sure to follow. (If the servants happen to overhear, there are questions of propriety as well.) Everyone's place in the world shifts, except Tropatchov's; he walks away from the damage he has caused with his arrogance unmitigated. In the end, order is restored, but at great cost, and Langella and Bates, each in his own way, are marvellous at showing us the cruelty and the pathos involved in keeping up appearances.

Has there ever been a more promising title for a play than "The Underpants"? After all, no other garment is so close to the facts and the concomitant follies of life. Our expectation that truth will be revealed and silliness displayed is rewarded to some extent in the Classic Stage Company's production of Carl Sternheim's satirical 1911 play (its German title is "Die Hose"), which deals with the consequences of an embarrassing event: a woman's underpants fall down in public during a royal parade. "The Underpants," performed here in a version by Steve Martin, suffers somewhat from the oppressively noisy direction of Barry Edelstein, the C.S.C.'s artistic director, who commissioned Martin to adapt the piece. Brevity is the soul of lingerie, as Dorothy Parker once wrote, and the play duly clocks in at ninety minutes, but the minutes do not fly as they should.
Theo Maske (Byron Jennings), a respectable government clerk, is mortified by what he sees as his wife's indiscretion. "I can't believe this happened to me!" he bellows, undeterred in his self-absorption even when his wife, Louise (Cheryl Lynn Bowers), points out that it didn't happen to him. When she adds that the whole event lasted only two seconds, Theo, in a classic Martinism, retorts, "Haven't you heard? Time is relative." Louise's mishap has given her a certain fame, and two men who saw it happen show up at the Maskes' apartment wanting to rent a room. One, Versati (Christian Camargo), is a pretentious, idiotic poet—"unpublished, I am proud to say"—and the other is a barber named Cohen (the amusing Lee Wilkof), who tells the anti-Semitic Theo, "That's Cohen with a K." Later on, a third prospective tenant appears, a sour, fussy old coot (William Duell), who crankily inquires, "Any tubas in the building? Sewing machines, parrots? Banjos?" Then there is the love-starved upstairs neighbor, Gertrude (Kristine Neilsen), who lives vicariously through Louise, and who rolls her eyes, Groucho-like, at the merest hint of sex.

Martin was an inspired choice for this play. He brings out its middle-class absurdities (speaking of absurdities, kudos to Scott Pask for his nuttily underwear-festooned set), and imbues it with just the slightest whiff of sadness. In his version, it's clear that everyone is isolated in his or her own fantasy world, and that in the pursuit of love we inevitably end up chasing our own tail. This is the sadness not of a cynic but of a true romantic.

The pointless production of "The Graduate" now at the Plymouth, starring Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson, was a hit in London a couple of years ago, but the flap must have gone out of its wings during the transatlantic journey. Turner's first scene with Benjamin Braddock (Jason Biggs, of "American Pie" fame), intended to pave the way for seduction, is endless and full of dead air, and it turns out to be an accurate indicator of things to come. Biggs is incapable of expression, Turner has the bizarre swagger of a female wrestler, and it's all just awful to watch. Though the adorable Alicia Silverstone (of "Clueless" fame) has a couple of moments that surprise, she is a little too cheerleadery as Elaine Robinson, and the play's only real pleasures are Victor Slezak, as Mr. Robinson, and Murphy Guyer, as Benjamin's father, who depict beautifully the anger and anxiety that underlie their postwar poolside bonhomie. Terry Johnson, who directed, adapted the novel and the screenplay, and we'll never understand why.

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