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About Love

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 4, 2020

Silvia Bond and Jeffrey Kringer
Photo by Russ Rowland
Russian writer Ivan Turgenev is not as widely read as his contemporaries Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but his best-known novel "Fathers and Sons," and play A Month in the Country have both stood the test of time. (Arguably, Fortune's Fool, which received an outstanding Broadway revival in 2002, should be produced more than it is.) Currently, the Culture Project is presenting About Love, a new play with music and songs, that is inspired by Turgenev's 1860 novella "First Love." While Will Pomerantz and Nancy Harrow's adaptation may not necessarily raise Turgenev's literary stature, it makes for a lovely and bittersweet night at the theater.

Based on Turgenev's own experiences, the plot focuses on sixteen-year-old Peter (Jeffrey Kringer), who is spending the summer with his bickering parents (Tom Patterson and Jean Tafler) at a house in the Russian countryside. A middle-aged and down-on-her-luck princess (Helen Coxe) and her twenty-one-year-old daughter Zina (Silvia Bond) have rented the cottage next door, and Peter is immediately smitten when he encounters the young woman.

Zina is surrounded by a group of gentlemen suitors, including a poet (Tafler), a count (Coxe), and a cynical doctor (Dan Domingues). Nevertheless, she and Peter draw closer together as the summer months progress, and the young man falls hopelessly in love with this woman who claims to hold a dark secret. In a fit of jealousy, Peter spies on Zina and discovers the identity of her passionate and sometimes brutal lover. Without revealing spoilers, suffice it to say that, since the source material is Russian, chances are pretty good that the revelation is fairly shocking (or at least it was when the novella was first published) and things will not end happily for all involved.

The script by Pomerantz (who also directed the play) retains the first-person narrative structure of the original, and the six-member ensemble (most of whom play several different characters) take turns recounting the events and providing exposition. This story-theater approach is very effective, and as a result, the events are disclosed through the fragmented recollections of a man reliving his own youthful innocence and eventual disillusionment.

The Cast
Photo by Russ Rowland
The play is underscored by Harrow, and the music (performed expertly by a quartet of musicians under Misha Josephs' direction) is especially appropriate when it captures the traditions and milieu of nineteenth-century Russia. Interspersed throughout are a handful of songs (most with music and lyrics by Harrow), several of which have twentieth-century jazz inflections. These create a tonal mismatch and detract from the emotional impact of the play. Unfortunately, the songs, with trite titles like "Can't Say Goodbye" and "Life Is Short," also contain clichéd lyrics that are at odds with the specificity of the setting, characters, and storyline. It is hard to fathom, for instance, Turgenev writing something so banal as, "Life is short but life is sweet/ All our plans are incomplete./ If you're careful, you'll survive/ One more day to be alive."

As Peter, Kringer is excellent. Without over applying the wide-eyed innocence of an adolescent, he is charmingly awkward and daffy. Bond is a good match, but she does not yet exude the irresistible sultriness of a manipulative woman who can make a coterie of men fall, sometimes quite literally, at her feet. The ensemble members (particularly Patterson as Peter's domineering father) skillfully convey (with the assistance of Whitney Locher's cleverly fluid period costumes and accessories) a colorful array of Russian royalty, nobility, and a couple of French-speaking servants.

The company gets excellent support from Brian C. Staton's scenic design and Allen Hahn's lighting. With several antique chairs and a few obligatory Russian birch trees, Staton's minimalist approach provides opportunities for the actors to create and quickly alter the dramatic atmosphere and identifiable landscapes. (In the last several years Bedlam has perfected this method in their own approach to canonical novels and plays.) Hahn's lighting helps establish the mood of the play while also providing theatrical equivalents of cinematic close ups, cross fades, and split screen images.

About Love is a rewarding and melancholy theatrical experience as it taps into the folly and heartbreak associated with first love. Additionally, the play makes a compelling case for reevaluating Turgenev's contributions to world literature.

About Love
Through March 22, 2020
Culture Project, Sheen Center Black Box Theater, 18 Bleecker St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: