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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Fortune's Fool -- An Actor's Dream
By Iran Turgenev
Adapted by Mike Poulton
Directed by Arthur Penn
The Music Box Theater
239 West 45th Street
(212) 239-6200
opened April 2, 2002
Reviewed May 15, 2002 by Margaret Croyden

The most important thing about "Fortune's Fool" is Alan Bates' performance. Always a fine actor on stage or screen, he is particularly grand in this. Perhaps it is the longest speaking part (except for "Hamlet") that an actor has had to learn. And Alan Bates, in a drunken monologue, captures the part, the play and the audience. There are drunk scenes and drunk scenes and I have seen many--but this one, imaginatively worked out by actor and director, captured all the details and mannerism and poignancy of the character.

Frank Langella, the other star in the production, makes a superb entrance. He is the next door neighbor, a land owner, a pretentious gay fop who beneath his humor is a vicious, nasty villain. Langella's first act is simply hilarious and full of innovative touches, but because he is so amusing at the beginning, even likable, he is not very believable in the rest of the play when he becomes a true-blue villain; he seems out of character. Maybe he should have shown some of that villainy in the first place, rather than the burlesque humor he relied upon.

The play by Turgenev is no "Month in the Country," the Russian's author most popular play, but it is very recognizably Turgenev, if not one of his best. The story, convoluted and hard to follow is about a fallen gentleman, Vassily (Alan Bates) who down on his heels, lives in the house of his former master, now dead. His daughter, the beautiful Olga Petrovna (played beautifully by Enid Graham) has inherited the property and returns from her honeymoon with a dull bourgeois opportunist (Benedict Bates). The next door neighbor Alexandrovitch (Frank Langella ) appears, dominates the group, urges everyone to drink to celebrate the wedding. Vassily prodded on by the meddling neighbor gets violently drunk, upsets and upsets things when he reveals a secret that will affect everyone's life. Then the plot gets dense; the story takes many turns, and twists, and unfortunately the play becomes somewhat melodramatic and repetitive, as the author tries to tie up all the strings. And there lies the major weakness in the play. It should have been pruned; instead it goes on, repeats itself, loses momentum, and ends up anti-climatic. Further, the intricate story line of the play --an overwritten plot--obscures the play's essential message: landowners with property, landowners who have lost property and those who would acquire property are all fortune's fools and pay for it with emotional havoc.

The acting as I have said is first rate, and credit must also go to the director, Arthur Penn who has returned to Broadway after an absence of many decades where he had been working in film and television and, for a time, has been artistic director of the Actor's Studio. It is always a pleasure to welcome people back to the theater and one hopes Mr. Penn will show up again.

Finally, it is a pleasure indeed to see serious actors on stage especially in the calibre of Alan Bates and Frank Langella. In a season where we have almost all revivals and soapy dramas it is an additionally satisfying to see a mature play with mature actors.[Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir "In the Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys" (Continuum). A new book "Conversations With Peter Brook" will be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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