Pitiful Parasite and Fatuous Fop Are Broadway’s Perfect Odd Couple

It’s good to see Ivan Turgenev on Broadway, where he doesn’t quite belong. His little-known 1848 play Fortune’s Fool , directed by Arthur Penn, has two juicy roles for star actors-one for Alan Bates as Kuzovkin, the sponging Russian aristocrat who’s wasted his life, and the other for Frank Langella’s wealthy, slightly campy and indolent Tropatchov, who’s wasted his life much better.

It’s always good to see that charmer, Alan Bates, in anything he does (including his near-silent party-piece as the butler in Gosford Park ). We recently saw him Off Broadway as the mysterious, dignified author in Yasmina Reza’s ever-so-slight Unexpected Man , in which he was, well, ever so slightly mysterious and dignified. Fortune’s Fool is altogether meatier, more challenging stuff, and Mr. Bates’ portrayal of the failed, impoverished Kuzovkin is a masterly and delicate depiction of a man whom fate has confined to foolish defeat.

He’s in unspoken, quiet mourning for his life, wearing his frayed black frock coat like a badge of shabby gentility. The self-effacing Mr. Bates and flamboyant Mr. Langella make an odd couple, but perhaps a perfect one. (If they swapped roles, they would be playing against type-all bets would be off, and the outcome unknown.) Mr. Langella has rarely been known to underplay. He’s a star actor who takes such delight in his own performances, it’s as if he’s wolfing down bonbons. He is more for the hammy notes and the grand gesture; he is for the spotlight. Mr. Langella is thus made for the showoff role of Tropatchov-an “infamous, fatuous fop,” as Kuzovkin tactlessly calls him. He’s also a clever and untrustworthy troublemaker whom Nancy Franklin of The New Yorker wittily suggests could be the love child of Gore Vidal and Dame Edna. “Darkness, silence, slush,” he sighs, dreading another Russian winter. “All that fur …. “

The young Olga Petrovna has returned home with her new husband, Pavel Yeletsky, to live at her childhood country estate, where Kuzovkin has been mooching off her family for years, singing for his supper like a court jester. His fear at the outset of the play-and the parasite Kuzovkin has always lived in fear-is that he’ll now be thrown out of the house, thrown to the wolves. He greets Olga with tender, near-fawning affection (and she gets his name wrong-a Freudian slip, it turns out). Then the showy grandee Tropatchov, a nosy neighbor, blunders into the bustling scene accompanied by a devoted friend-an early version of a Russian boy-toy-to introduce himself to the newlyweds. “My worst fear, my nightmare,” he announces with grand insincerity, “is that you’ll find us all so very dull-so very, very dull and you’ll scurry away back to St. Petersburg, flippety-floppety like a pair of little gray rabbits.”

“Ennui,” or flippety-floppety lassitude, is, of course, a Russian calling card. Turgenev, who predates Chekhov, was therefore “Chekhovian” first.

Only Russian playwrights make a signature tune of the word “bored,” but only a great or foolish one would risk being deliberately boring. Yet the humane Turgenev risks everything with surprising success in his ludicrously long and windy drunk scene for the humiliated Kuzovkin. It’s unusual when an actor plays drunk quietly. Mr. Bates delivers the goods so effortlessly that the escalating comedy of an unaware, panicking drunk has rarely seemed funnier or more pathetically tragic. “How one has to pay for telling the truth,” Kuzovkin ruefully acknowledges later-too late for him.

During the drunk scene, we learn that Kuzovkin was cheated out of his own estate and has been involved in a farcically unwinnable lawsuit to get it back. The hapless Kuzovkin is the worst of all aggrieved things, an eternal litigant. When he lets slip that he’s really the father of Olga Petrovna-therein lies a tale! Or half a play. Unfortunately, there’s almost enough sentimentality in the shaky second act to sink the comic, cliff-hanging first.

“A poet must be a psychologist, but a discreet one,” Turgenev advised. Perhaps he was warning, discreetly, against ponderous productions of his own plays. But the poet here-writing two years before A Month in the Country -had yet to find his voice. His assured, mature voice would tell us about the ridiculousness of ruinous appearances and wasted lives, as Chekhov did. But the comedy of pitiful, proud Kuzovkin in Fortune’s Fool submerges the tragedy of his agonized secret love for his daughter, making the second act essentially a long, bathetic resolution with a peculiar end.

Minor Turgenev is better than no Turgenev at all, but what if the survivor Kuzovkin is lying through his back teeth about his fatherhood? What if he’s a complete fake-as the powdery bonhomie of Tropatchov camouflages a cruel man? What then? Then Turgenev would have written a different play, which would have been a spicier one, but not the play he had in mind. As it is, Fortune’s Fool , adapted by Mike Poulton, is nice and safe, bourgeois fare that Mr. Bates first appeared in at nice and safe, bourgeois Chichester Festival.

Alas, the distinguished Arthur Penn’s Broadway production as a whole looks and feels about as Russian as plastic fruit in a bowl. The work of the designers John Arnone (sets) and Jane Greenwood (costumes) is way below their best form. We could be anywhere. We could be in Chichester (U.K.) or the Berkshires (Massachusetts). Enid Graham’s placid Olga Petrovna is too unmysterious for Turgenev’s more circumspect, pampered heroines. I would have preferred the appealing, reasonable Yeletsky of Benedick Bates (the talented son of Mr. Bates) to be a harder-edged portrait of a dangerous, cold husband. But Mr. Penn has spent his ammunition, and his costume budget, on his star performers, and Turgenev’s rarely performed social comedy happily belongs to them.

Pitiful Parasite and Fatuous Fop Are Broadway’s Perfect Odd Couple