Railroad metaphors are especially potent in Russian literature, so here’s one for the Guthrie Theater production of Crispin Whittell’s “The Primrose Path” - a new adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s 1859 novel “Home of the Gentry.” It’s an express train headed straight to nowhere interesting when it’s derailed by director Roger Rees, and then it has nothing to do but spin its wheels until it runs out of steam.
It’s not Turgenev’s fault that his younger contemporary Anton Chekhov has made the bitter personal politics of 19th century rural Russia a routinely encountered tableau on the 21st century American stage. But Whittell knew what he was up against, and to borrow another metaphor appropriate to the period, his script isn’t up to snuff. Not everyone can be Chekhov, but if you’re going to steppe out in 2013, you’d better steppe out in style.
One of the reasons he chose to adapt “Home of the Gentry,” Whittell says in a program note, was that the story has “all these wonderful parts for women.” Such as? The part of the shallow and pretentious mother who wants to marry her daughter into high society! The part of the wisecracking single Woman of a Certain Age who’s not afraid to get real! The part of the sex-crazed maid! The part of the vain and manipulative married woman who can’t keep her hands on her own husband!
And then of course, the part of the virginal and (natch) “intelligent” young girl who can’t marry the sketchy-but-philosophical older man she loves instead of the cocky young ass her mother would prefer! These characters might have felt fresh on the page in 1859, but on the stage in 2013, they’re “wonderful” only insofar as they provide five actresses with paychecks that might allow them the freedom to take genuinely wonderful parts in other shows.
To be fair, “The Primrose Path” did earn a lot of laughs from Friday’s opening night audience, but it’s also fair to point out that a lot of those laughs didn’t feel like laughs that either Whittell or Rees were looking for. The show’s first act generates sitcom-style chuckles so consistently (master to cranky old servant: “Do we have any lemons for the tea?” cranky old servant: “Are you joking?!”) that when proceedings take a turn for the tragic in the second act, Friday’s audience just kept right on laughing. They only sobered up when an unmistakably bleak visual closed the show, but then were happy to jump to their feet and clap in rhythm when the cast came dancing merrily back on stage for the curtain call to take bows for characters who had just been consigned to live out the rest of their days in tortured loneliness.
The audience was certainly entertained, but the blame must fall on Rees for betraying the script’s substance (such as it is) by letting his cast lose control of the show’s tone. These actors play it big and broad, which wins laughs - but at the expense of tears when the ensemble proves unable to summon the gravitas Whittell and Rees seem to have been hoping for. Further, a major plot point - regarding a mysterious and urgent message - is never clearly explained, leaving us confused as to why the characters so readily accept a plot development that was previously believed to be impossible.
The supporting cast fares best here, notably Hugh Kennedy as the dandyish Panshin and Sally Wingert as materfamilias Maria. With neither burdened by a character who ever has to be taken seriously, they’re both free to play straight to the peanut gallery. By contrast, leads Kyle Fabel and Suzy Kohane fall flat. Fabel delivers virtually all of his lines in a gruff bark that, combined with his thick red beard, suggests Zach Galifianakis trying to lead the Army of the Potomac. As his young lover Elizaveta, Kohane needs to suggest a bright soul struggling against its fetters, but the character is underwritten and the actress, constantly defaulting to a weakly apologetic tone, is unable to convey a sense of coherence or depth.
Even the sets, by the often superb Neil Patel, underwhelm. Simple yet inelegant, they never offer relief from the awkwardness - and sometimes add to it, as in the case of an aquatic scene featuring what someone sitting near me referred to as “a raft on a Roomba.”
The characters in “Primrose Path” are constantly threatening to leave, citing this or that urgent piece of business pulling them away from the company they’re keeping onstage. And yet they keep failing to depart, or running off and then quickly returning, and it’s well over two hours before we’re finally allowed to wave them do svidaniya.