The Guthrie Theater has mounted three major new plays this season — a substantial accomplishment, even if the results have been mixed. “Appomattox,” part of the Christopher Hampton festival last fall, was history etched on a slab of drywall. “Nice Fish,” now on the proscenium stage, is longish but lively and full of Mark Rylance’s inventive imagination.
“The Primrose Path,” which opened Friday on the thrust stage, is a third distinct style — an adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s 1859 novel “Home of the Gentry.” Playwright Crispin Whittell and director Roger Rees have sought to balance the jollity of Turgenev’s slightly absurd characters with the story’s aching heart. It is not a fair fight. The fretful, beating pulse rarely is heard amid the din of harridans, the tumult of servants and the soulless burlesque of funny characters dropping one-liners and pulling mugs.
This should be a play about Lavretsky (Kyle Fabel), who has returned to the womb of Mother Russia after a failed marriage in Paris. He somehow stirs the affections of young Elizaveta (Suzy Kohane), a slender reed who just might be the anodyne for his failure. Alas, she is enthralled to God.
This tête-à-tête requires charisma and chemistry. Fabel brings little of that to Lavretsky, a wounded man who seldom shows it. Kohane’s Elizaveta shows her vexation with existence through brittle angst. That might be the right choice, but in a dance between two fragile psyches about whom we should care, it hardly provokes our emotion.
“Primrose” just does not smell Russian enough. We don’t feel the heavy air of the Steppe and the whiff of a desperate and unquenchable pursuit of happiness. Two secondary characters, Jim Stanek’s Mikhalevich and Christian Bardin’s maid, come closest to this grasping lust for life. And fair play to him, Whittell has written scenes that muse about the struggle, the future of Czarist Russia, the love of God and the immutability of time. But these moments land as glancing blows.
Otherwise, we have a parlor comedy. Sally Wingert, dressed in one gorgeous Fabio Toblini gown after the other, spars with Candace Barrett Birk, a dowdy relative who hangs around the family estate (sketched very lightly by set designer Neil Patel). Tom Bloom, who actually plays the piano on stage, is not much more than a prop.
The unfortunate bargains of the Guthrie’s production are best illustrated in how composer Wayne Barker’s music for voice is employed. Early on, Kohane’s Elizaveta sings a few bars and her gorgeous voice makes us want much more; why would you not use Kohane’s instrument to reveal this spiritual creature? Instead, the songs make their biggest impact as comic vehicles for Hugh Kennedy’s Panshin — a phony aristocratic suitor for Elizaveta — and Ann Michels as Lavretsky’s estranged wife.
This isn’t to blame Kennedy and Michels — fine actors providing comic relief. But comic relief is cheap in this swirling carnival of amusement. What we need more of is the story’s core.