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One of Turgenev's Classics Gets a Sitcom-Like Update

Theater Beat

June 30, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY

Viewing "A Month in the Country After Turgenev" at the Odyssey Theatre prompts the rhetorical question: "Why on earth?"

Why, for example, would director Dorothy Lyman uproot Ivan Turgenev's quintessentially Russian period piece, "A Month in the Country," and set it in a modern-day American suburb? And why would she impose a shallow sitcom sensibility on this incisive treatment of a bored Russian aristocracy in decline? Lyman takes Brian Friel's delicate adaptation of Turgenev's 1850 play and plops it down on a wheezing whoopee cushion, crudely disrupting the integrity and intentions of the original.

The plot of "Country" pulsates primarily around Natalya (Stephanie Nash), a bored and beautiful matron who inspires frantic devotion among the unattached men on her husband Arkady's estate. Natalya is having an affair with Michel (Blake Boyd), her husband's best friend--but her increasing obsession with her son's handsome tutor results in painful disruptions and revelations.

Evocatively lighted by Shirley Halahmy, Lawrence Miller's handsome set suggests a well-kept bastion of contemporary affluence, complete with courtyard, gazebo and AstroTurf-perfect lawn. All in all, it's a fairly typical American scene--if you can ignore those serfs sequestered on the back 40.

Like Chekhov after him, Turgenev captured the gentle, often humorous malaise of a privileged people with too much time on their hands. Not that you'd know it from this production. From the moment a character dashes onstage in Groucho glasses, freneticism prevails. Trapped by Lyman's chimerical concept, the capable performers are forced into excess and inelegance. Exceptions include the graceful Mimi Cozzens, who plays Arkady's sensible mother, and Jim Petersmith's Arkady, a triumphantly subtle portrayal amid the general blatancy.

* "A Month in the Country After Turgenev," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; July 16 and 30 only, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 6. $19.50-$23.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

The Future Shock of 1921's 'R.U.R.'

First produced in 1921, Karel Capek's "R.U.R." is perhaps most famous for introducing the word "robot" into the language. Some 80 years later, Capek's once shocking and cutting-edge play about technology run amok now verges on the campy. However, in spite of its slightly archaic quality, Capek's cautionary tale remains an astute examination of the role of morality in the scientific process.

Although Jerome Guardino's staging of the play at Lonny Chapman's Group Repertory Theatre has a distinct community-theater feel to it, it's a rare opportunity to experience a seldom-staged classic. Whether that sufficiently compensates for a slow start and intermittently competent acting is arguable.

The action opens in the high-tech offices of Domin (Arlan Boggs), the general manager of Rossum's Universal Robots (hence the initials). No money-grubbing technocrat, Domin has visions of freeing the working classes from grinding toil. To that end, his company has shipped millions of robot laborers around the globe. But when Helena (Casey Ging), Domin's idealistic wife, convinces her scientist admirer Dr. Gall (Robert Gallo) to modify the robot prototype--in short, to give robots "souls"--she opens a Pandora's box of problems that could spell the end of humankind.

Humans or robots? Which will prevail? Unfortunately, not Capek's play, although the strobe-lighted final conflict, in which the humans face off against the robots, almost makes up for the production's flaws.

Among the checkered cast, Gallo stands out as a man of science undone by romance, while Kathleen Taylor balances comedy with hysteria as Helena's skittish assistant, Emma. Robert McCollum is properly menacing as the robot leader, Radius, an ultimately totalitarian despot who eerily presages Hitler, who was so soon to crush Capek's native Czechoslovakia under the Nazi juggernaut.

* "R.U.R.," Lonny Chapman's Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends July 29. $16. (818) 769-7529. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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