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THEATER REVIEW

This son to Turgenev's `Fathers' is a bit rowdier

September 11, 2006|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

Oh, those Russians. When it comes to translating Russian classics for contemporary American audiences, there's many a slip 'twixt page and stage.

As interpreters of Chekhov are aware, the Russians are a deceptively downbeat lot whose outward despair is typically informed by a very dark humor begging to be set free.

Finding the key is another matter. Take Turgenev, that most delicate of Russian novelists. Hugely controversial in its day, Turgenev's visionary masterwork, "Fathers and Sons," amplified the seismic groaning of revolution decades before the fact. Yet for the careful listener, echoes of rueful laughter can also be heard.

In "Nothing Sacred," George F. Walker's theatrical adaptation of the novel, now at South Coast Repertory, director Martin Benson tries to loosen Turgenev's gentle comic rhythms not with a key, but a crowbar. Benson's staging is bold, even daring, but a bit vandalistic.

Not so Walker's late-1980s adaptation, which goes a long way toward synthesizing the novel's somewhat desultory events. In addition to a reworked and revisionist ending that packs some dramatic oomph into the play's latter scenes, Walker's most telling tweak is the transformation of Bazarov, the radical medical student who is the book's most famous character.

As Turgenev wrote him, Bazarov was a relentless and often irritating ideologue whose unbending nihilism seemed the obvious sexual sublimation of a young man who just couldn't get lucky. Instead of a callow fanatic, Walker's Bazarov is a player at the peak of his sexual powers.

Tall and angular, Eric D. Steinberg makes the most of the role in a dashing turn that helps us understand the appeal that Bazarov has over willing disciples such as Arkady (Daniel Blinkoff), whose puppy-like adoration of Bazarov will soon pall. Steinberg's Bazarov is a model of suavity and poise, a portrayal well balanced by Blinkoff's effectively wide-eyed Arkady.

There's an odd disconnect in Benson's awkward mingling of naturalism and farce. Whereas the aristocratic characters are subtly rendered, the serfs are downright buffoons, cartoons tacked onto the periphery of an impressionist landscape.

That impressionistic quality is most evident in James Youmans and Jerome Martin's delicately dappled set, which perfectly evokes the play's pastoral milieu, as does York Kennedy's superb lighting. Angela Balogh Calin's costumes are wittily rendered, although Michael Roth's original music, a mix of cryptic Russian songs bawled by the cast during scene changes, seems a self-conscious conceit.

Perhaps Benson intended the differences between the play's three-dimensional aristocrats and one-dimensional serfs as a sort of stylistic device emphasizing the vast divide between Russia's nobility and peasantry. What seems less volitional are the yawning gaps in the acting styles of his performers, who range from the consummately polished to the prosaic.

Most distinguished among this checkered company is the marvelous John Vickery as Arkady's Uncle Pavel, a fop with a lion's heart who is as heartbreakingly ludicrous as he is admirable. Also wonderful is Richard Doyle as Arkady's father, a simple man whose kindness ultimately weans Arkady away from Bazarov's heartless radicalism. And the always gratifying Hal Landon, who plays Pavel's comically "Europeanized" servant, maintains a granite deadpan that shatters the audience's funny bone.

*

'Nothing Sacred'

Where: South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 8

Price: $20-$60

Contact: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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