Isn't it enough that we have four Chekhov plays that are set on forlorn country estates and are constantly revived and, invariably, weakly done? Do we need yet another such play? Well, we have one. "Fortune's Fool," directed by Arthur Penn and starring Alan Bates and Frank Langella, is an adaptation of an 1848 play by Ivan Turgenev. It was originally called "A Poor Gentleman," and the change of title in Mike Poulton's adaptation suggests some of the production's problems. Turgenev's title is simple and to the point. "Fortune's Fool," by contrast, aims for a kind of needless cleverness. The main character, Kuzovkin, is indeed a poor gentleman who has lived for 30 years on the estate of a rich man who apparently treated him like a court jester. That man has been dead for 20 years, but now his daughter, Olga, has married and returned to the estate with her new husband, Pavel, who, even in 1848, has a "bottom line" mentality. Kuzovkin fears Pavel will evict him. Egged on by foppish neighbor Tropatchov, Kuzovkin becomes drunk and reveals a part of the family past that startles everyone and virtually guarantees his eviction. The portrait of a pathetic, useless fellow undone partly by his own fatalism, partly by the forces of modernism, is one that resonates clearly for us. For the play, which veers between sentimental comedy and melodrama, to work, however, we really must believe that we are in 19th-century Russia - when the cracks that would destroy the nobility were already clear. In this production there is no consistency even in the actors' accents, some of which are gratingly American, others of which are English. Hence there is no illusion of a particular time and place, which is essential to this fragile play. Bates has a wonderfully poignant quality as Kuzovkin, especially in the long monologue in which, with endearing befuddlement, he makes his startling confession. As the man who goads him into it, Langella is properly supercilious, but too often we feel he is signaling us that he knows what a nasty fop his character is rather than simply playing it. In some ways the most convincing figure on stage is George Morfogen as Kuzovkin's friend, though Benedick Bates (Alan's son) is strong as the unfeeling husband. Jane Greenwood's costumes have a clearer sense of style than many of the actors who wear them. John Arnone's sets have charm, quite unaided by Brian Nason's lighting. Penn's direction has not solved the difficulties the play poses. "Fortune's Fool" is another problematic attempt to grasp a sad, helpless world to which we seem irresistibly drawn.
Where has Ivan Turgenev's "Fortune's Fool" been all our lives?Turgenev, celebrated for his short stories, novels and delineation of what he called the "superfluous man" - the idle aristocrat in Czarist Russia - wrote quite a few plays, but only "A Month in the Country" seems to have survived outside of Russia.
That is, until Mike Poulton's adaptation of "Nakhlebnik," or "Fortune's Fool," which arrived at the Music Box Theatre last night in a staging by Arthur Penn as crisp as a Russian spring and boasting two virtuoso performances from Alan Bates and Frank Langella.
Poulton's adaptation was first given at Britain's Chichester Festival in 1996 - and, so far as I could discover, was the only English-language stage production of the play since 1909.
It's a romantic comedy that starts with an arrival, proceeds with a revelation and ends with a bittersweet departure.
Here the arrival is that of Olga Petrovna (Enid Graham), who, after many years, has come back to her family estate, accompanied by her new bridegroom, Pavel Nikolaitch Tropatchov (Benedick Bates), and anxiously awaited by Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin (Alan Bates).
Kuzovkin is a perfect example of Turgenev's "superfluous man." An elderly and totally penniless nobleman who has, it seems, been tricked out of his estates, he has been living in penurious charity at the country house since the death of Olga's parents.
Insulted by the serf servants, this down-at-the-soul man, once maintained by Olga's father as a kind of court jester, now has only a poor neighbor, Ivanov (George Morfogen), as his friend and chess partner.
At first, it seems as though Kuzovkin will be accepted by the happy couple.
Enter Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov (Langella), a wealthy land-owner and foppish snob. Tropatchov is an overbearing, semicultivated lout with a clever and infinite gift for making trouble.
He virtually invites himself to dinner. Then he plies Kuzovkin with unwelcome drink and goads him into making a complete fool of himself, and is finally rewarded with Kuzovkin desperately offering a revelation that - true or not - will almost certainly lead him to leave his home and shelter.
It is a play that is both extraordinarily amusing, yet also - and this is Turgenev's, and also Alan Bates', genius - eventually extraordinarily moving.
Under Penn's carefully modulated direction and helped by the designers, John Arnone (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes), Brian Nason (lighting) and Brian Ronan (sound), Turgenev's rural mid-19th-century Russia comes to 21st-century Broadway life.
Langella's Tropatchov is a wonderful steamroller of a performance, with all the bells and whistles clanging and wheezing at storm force. He is terrific.
And all the subsidiary performances - particularly Graham's gracious Olga, Benedick Bates' crass yet decent Pavel and Morfogen's dowdy and appalled neighbor - are splendid.
Yet the play hinges on Kuzovkin, and Alan Bates - from humble start to humiliating finish - doesn't put a foolish step, futile gesture or insinuating tone wrong.
This is a performance to cherish - Alan Bates, always the exemplary technician, revealing a sad heart and shabby passion you'll remember all your life.
It may be your opinion that the last thing Manhattan needs is another drunken windbag, the kind who ruins dinner parties by driveling and ranting through every course, spitting food and sloshing wine. But please let Alan Bates help you to reconsider this social prejudice.
Mr. Bates, you see, is playing just that sort of man, a fellow whom liquor turns into a logorrheic, napkin-slinging nightmare, in ''Fortune's Fool,'' an Ivan Turgenev play some 150 years old that is only now receiving its Broadway premiere. And oh what a lovely bore Mr. Bates turns out to be. This charisma-packed British actor -- who became a renegade matinee idol in the 1960's with films like ''Georgy Girl'' and ''King of Hearts'' -- returned to the New York stage last season (after a three-decade absence) in Yasmina Reza's ''Unexpected Man.'' But his stately, teasing performance merely hinted at the fireworks he is still capable of releasing.
For at least 15 minutes of ''Fortune's Fool,'' which opened last night at the Music Box Theater, Mr. Bates brings out the Roman candles, and it is a spectacle no lover of acting should miss. Playing a shabby, self-effacing Russian aristocrat, Mr. Bates turns one sad fellow's humiliating moment of drunken grandstanding into a triumph of timing, technique and continuously startling insights.
Not that ''Fortune's Fool,'' as a whole, calls for the uncorking of Champagne. The production is indeed the occasion for the fabled director Arthur Penn to return to Broadway after 25 years, and it features a deliciously overripe Frank Langella. Yet the show soars into celestial realms only when Mr. Bates and his fellow performers are in their cups.
The play, which has been liberally reshaped in Mike Poulton's well-spoken adaptation, was created by a 30-year-old Turgenev, still discovering his literary powers. ''Fortune's Fool'' is blessed with the sort of dazzling, quick-stroke character portraits one associates with his ''Sportsman's Sketches'' of the same period. Structurally, this study of aristocratic ennui and anxiety in provincial Russia is much less confident.
A chronicle of the disruptive events precipitated by the return of the young heiress Olga Petrovna (Enid Graham) and her new husband, Pavel Nikolaitch Yeletsky (Benedick Bates, son of Alan), to her country estate, ''Fortune's Fool'' feels like only half of a fully realized play. Teetering between psychological comedy and Victorian melodrama, it features one plot-wrenching revelation that ends the first act in a thunderclap, followed by a long second act of highly sentimental explanations.
It is not by story alone, in other words, that ''Fortune's Fool'' will captivate an audience. Even more than the plays of Chekhov, whose lineage can be glimpsed here, ''Fortune's Fool'' demands thick atmospheric smoke and gleamingly detailed idiosyncrasies.
Mr. Penn's production has visible bald spots throughout. John Arnone's shiny sets and Jane Greenwood's period costumes have the synthetic look of something freshly removed from plastic wrapping. And when the curtain goes up on a gaggle of serfs busily cleaning house, they bring to mind some vintage Ruritanian romance in which peasants burst into happy song.
That this will not be the case is evident as soon as the elder Mr. Bates takes the stage in a threadbare black suit and a hesitant walk that is redolent of apology and defensiveness. He instantly registers as both a type, the sort of parasitic poor relation common to 19th-century European fiction, and a disturbingly real individual.
This two-leveled portraiture was a specialty of Turgenev, and it is a thrill to watch how Mr. Bates and Mr. Langella translate writerly finesse into actorly language. That their fellow performers never rise to the same level of heightened verisimilitude gives the production a wobbly quality, as if it were walking on one neatly fitted high-heeled boot and one very flat bare foot.
The story, like Chekhov's ''Cherry Orchard,'' begins with the arrival of cosmopolites in the countryside, where they are awaited by locals eager for excitement. Mr. Bates's Kuzovkin, a penurious, self-described gentleman who has been living on the estate for two decades, is especially eager to see the new bride, whom he remembers adoringly as a little girl.
Then there is the effete, French-spouting landowner Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov (Mr. Langella). A man of wry politesse and rococo mannerisms, Tropatchov is a part Mr. Langella could play with his eyes closed.
Fortunately he keeps his eyes open, revealing in them a glinting, manipulative malevolence that comes from being clever and bored in a stagnant society. While Mr. Langella is nearly always funny, he is ultimately as cuddly as a cobra. His Tropatchov may be a cartoon, but it is of the sort drawn by Goya and Daumier.
It is Tropatchov, with the help of his pet nobleman Karpatchov (Timothy Doyle), who initiates the diversion that comes to seem as vicious as bear baiting. He gets Kuzovkin drunk at dinner in the presence of the bridegroom and then makes him talk about his hobbyhorse, a longstanding lawsuit of Dickensian dimensions.
Mr. Penn steers this remarkable scene into a mixture of subtlety and flash that confirms his formidable reputation as an actor's director. As Mr. Bates rambles through the convolutions of an incomprehensible list of grievances, replete with genealogical annotations, Kuzovkin is by turns hilarious, pathetic, frightening and finally almost tragic.
An entire wasted life, the stuff of which long Russian novels were made, is in this monologue. Mr. Bates finds astonishing and revealing variety in the splintered dignity of a man who literally used to sing for his supper at the table of Olga Petrovna's father, now dead.
His fellow performers -- who also include George Morfogen -- are all expertly on-target, tracing the swell of drunken giddiness into barbaric cruelty.
The second act, which takes place the morning after, often feels like a hangover in ways that go beyond the plot.
The emphasis shifts to the uneasy, three-sided relationship among Kuzovkin and the newlyweds. Ms. Graham and Benedick Bates do not begin to generate the kind of complexity required here.
Ms. Graham's straightforward, poised primness has little to do with her character's emotional effusiveness. And Benedick Bates is far too genial to justify the descriptions of Yeletsky as cold. This means that Alan Bates winds up acting for three, and he relies on some heroic posturings that shortchange a character who should remain to some degree ambiguous.
On the other hand -- and it is a big hand -- this does not displace the searing vision of Kuzovkin's brilliantly charted free fall at the dinner party. Drunk scenes usually find performers making the most of the chance to behave sloppily. This one, as led by Mr. Bates, genuinely finds that elusive veritas in the vino.
"I want you all to myself," purrs Frank Langella toward the end of the first act of "Fortune's Fool," and for a startling moment you wonder whether a character is addressing his companions or an actor is overtly seducing his audience. By this point the actor, at least, has already achieved the stated objective. Sweeping onstage in natty green jacket and silk waistcoat, kid-gloved hands flapping elegantly, Langella instantly commandeers audience affection with his high-quality, low-camp performance as a spectacularly effete aristocrat stirring up trouble on a Russian estate.
Langella's merry showboating -- shameless, yes, but entertaining -- threatens to stop the show cold, but the same effect probably could be achieved by a small child with a hula hoop. The unhappy fact is this rarely performed Turgenev play never gathers much dramatic steam as it meanders oddly from galumphing comedy to heart-tugging melodrama in the course of two very labored acts. Director Arthur Penn, returning to Broadway after an absence of about 20 years, apparently has not gotten all the rust out of his stage technique.
Of course, the material betrays some wear and tear, too. Although Turgenev wrote several plays before turning exclusively to prose, the only work to survive in the general repertoire is "A Month in the Country," a comedy about dissatisfied aristocrats that has a distinctly Chekhovian perfume. On the surface "Fortune's Fool" seems to be covering similar territory, but its humor -- as adapted by Mike Poulton, whose name looms suspiciously larger than the author's on the title page -- is bumpier and broader, and instead of the complex humanism we associate with both authors it trades in a more stagebound kind of sentimentality. (Incidentally -- or maybe not -- Poulton also provided adapting chores for the none-too-Chekhovian "Uncle Vanya" seen on Broadway two years ago.)
The Russian country estate with the bustling servants certainly seems familiar, although John Arnone's uninspired sets are unfortunately lit with the bright glare of an Ikea showroom by Brian Nason (the furniture looks better than the actors). The show's other above-the-title star, Alan Bates, plays one of those used-up gentlemen so dear to the souls of both Chekhov and Turgenev, a down-at-heels aristocrat named Kuzovkin who has lived for 30 years on the estate of an old friend long since deceased.
As the play begins, Kuzovkin is enduring the casual scorn of the servants while nervously awaiting the arrival of the estate's owner, the young bride Olga Petrovna (Enid Graham), and her new husband, Yeletsky (Benedick Bates, son of Alan). Olga has been away for nine years -- she was 13 when she left to live with another relative -- and Kuzovkin fears the young lady and her new husband will have no use for such a self-consciously unnecessary person.
Bates' Kuzovkin is funny and often endearing: He plays the twitching, twittering man as a puppy eager for love but painfully aware of its own manginess. In the comic centerpiece of the first act, Kuzovkin is baited by the suavely sneering Flegont (Langella), snooping from a neighboring estate, into recounting the fantastic tale of his fruitless efforts to regain the inheritance he believes he's entitled to.
Fortified by champagne, Kuzovkin launches into a narrative of epic length and impenetrable detail (the influence of Gogol is felt here), and he ends up a stupefied, bewildered laughingstock. Bates wonderfully registers the man's gradual descent into alcoholic stupor and verbal incontinence, to simultaneously uproarious and pitiful effect.
But this is the rare occasion on which the qualities of the writing and the acting converge comfortably. Elsewhere, confusion seems to reign. The actors cast as the servants -- among them Lola Pashalinski, who at least looks right as a Russian nanny -- are unable to make their rather laborious antics amusing.
And some of the leading players seem uncertain in their approach to their characters. Benedick Bates' stiff Yeletsky veers between snobbish hauteur and gentlemanly sympathy in his dealings with Kuzovkin; the actor fails to knit the contradictory attitudes into a coherent character. Graham, a talented young actress much-seen on Gotham stages in recent seasons, also seems at sea in the role of the young bride, whose relationship to Kuzovkin grows more complicated over the course of the evening. Her voice has an inappropriately steely edge to it, and she fails to project the radiant innocence and full-hearted affection required to animate her character. (Jane Greenwood's costumes are lovely, but somehow Graham looks more like an English governess than a Russian aristocrat in her chignon and full skirts.)
George Morfogen and Timothy Doyle grab a few stray laughs as sidekicks to Kuzovkin and Flegont, respectively, but even the estimable senior Bates is ultimately unable to achieve the emotional affect the second act seems to strive for, as circumstances force Kuzovkin to separate himself from his beloved Olga. Their lengthy colloquy fails to stir much real sympathy.
The general air of aimlessness doesn't daunt Langella, at any rate. Whenever he's onstage he seems intent on making up for any lack of real dramatic coherence by providing enough lip-pursing and eyebrow-arching to keep the audience permanently distracted. But even his hard-working hamminess can't always disguise the awkwardnesses of this curiosity, a literary resurrection that does no great service to the reputation of an already underappreciated writer.