John Malkovich and Yasen Peyankov in Lost Land(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
John Malkovich and Yasen Peyankov in Lost Land
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
In a rare return to legitimate theater, John Malkovich is onstage at Steppenwolf Theatre Company (he's an original ensemble member) in Lost Land, a world premiere by British playwright Stephen Jeffreys. Malkovich and Jeffreys have partnered before on Jeffreys' historic drama The Libertine, set in Restoration England. Lost Land also uses history as a hook, this time Hungarian history at the end of World War I. However, Jeffreys is far more indebted -- sometimes self-consciously so -- to Anton Chekhov and Bernard Shaw than he is to history. Driven by characters and ideas rather than story, Lost Land puts its obvious literary pedigree center stage.

The hero is Count Kristof (Malkovich), a middle-aged former politician content to sit out World War I by supervising his vast estate -- complete with 600 peasants -- in Northern Hungary while his unmarried sister Ilona supervises the making of Tokaj wine. Describing himself as "a liberal but an old fashioned one," Kristof rules his estate as a benevolent despot, yet he promotes land reform to help engender a new Hungarian national identity that would erase ancient divisions between Magyar land owners and the non-Magyar peasantry.

A Hussar cavalry officer, Miklos, unexpectedly brings news that the war will end soon, with the Austro-Hungarian Empire among the losers. Representing Budapest power brokers, Miklos offers the respected Count a ministerial appointment in the post-war government, promising to embrace his land redistribution plan. As Act I ends, Kristof departs for Budapest for three weeks, putting Miklos (Steppenwolf Ensemble member Yasen Peyankov) in charge of his castle and lands.

Kristof doesn't return for nine months, during which time two postwar governments rise and fall and the victorious Allies give half of Hungary's territory to surrounding nations. Meanwhile back at the ranch, Miklos has benignly neglected Count Kristof's land redistribution, undermined Kristof's ideal of Hungarian nationality, and bedded both Kristof's peasant mistress and Ilona (Steppenwolf Ensemble member Martha Lavey). When Kristof reappears, the inevitable confrontation with Miklos ends in death for one and exile for the other. (I won't say who suffers which fate.)

World War I doomed the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires; even today, we're cleaning up loose ends that have lingered for 88 years. Chekhov didn't live to see the end of empire -- more accurately, the end of empire as he understood it -- but his great plays spiritually presaged it and embraced a more egalitarian future. Shaw, for his part, accurately foretold the destruction of the old European order.

In Lost Land, Kristof frequently acts in Chekhovian fashion: he is a 19th-century man conscious of embracing the 20th century, motivated by ideals but restrained by inertia. Miklos is the antagonist but also the Shavian Man of Action pitted against Kristof's dreamer, the pragmatist vs. the romantic, the embassy of realpolitik vs. the reformer idealist. Of course, Shaw's Man of Action is a hero while Jeffreys' is not, while Chekhov waxed political only in vague terms.

The Brits do historical drama well; Lost Land is notable for its crisp intelligence, well-developed principal characters, and well-integrated exposition. With remarkable speed and economy, he raises the chief issues and does so with vocabulary and elocution that seem to echo the play's period: Ilona refers to a bed cover as a counterpane. But Jeffreys breaks style by introducing the modern word "infrastructure" along with several unnecessary four-letter words, and whenever the dialogue turns specifically political, it becomes unsubtle.

There also are two plot points that stretch belief. In Act I, Kristof gives all authority to a man he scarcely knows over the obvious candidacy of his own sister. Away for nine months, he sends his sister and Miklos no instructions, nor do they send reports to him in Budapest. In the final scene, Kristof brings out a box that's instantly recognizable as a pistol box, yet Miklos -- a military officer -- fails to take note. Jeffreys seems a skillful enough writer that he should have been able to correct these language and character flaws.

No longer youthful or trim, John Malkovich is letting himself age gracefully, not that the body beautiful or the face handsome were ever his claims to fame. His little remaining hair is close-cropped and gray, as is his goatee. In 25 years of live stage work, Malkovich typically has taken dynamic, energized roles such as those he played in True West and Burn This, and has given edgy -- even malevolent -- screen portrayals in such films as In the Line of Fire, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Killing Fields. Ten years ago, he would have played the dangerous Miklos, but now he's the more contemplative Kristof.

Martha Lavey in Lost Land(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Martha Lavey in Lost Land
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Under director Terry Johnson (who also directed The Libertine), Malkovich's Kristof displays anger, surprise, passion, sly humor, even command -- but he's not colorful, which may disappoint some of this actor's fans. Nonetheless, Kristof is what Malkovich most treasures in a role: an enigma. He's liberal but peremptory; he elevates the peasantry yet makes a servant his fetishistic mistress; he has pride of position and love of land but is willing to relinquish both; his honor is negated by an opportunistic world. Kristof's reticence allows Malkovich, with his instinctively feline intensity and piercing eyes, to create a character who's always thoughtful and watchful, even in casual moments.

Peyankov, well known to Chicago theatergoers, is a worthy antagonist. Lavey is a spirited sister, repressed yet funny and sensual when appropriate. They match Malkovich in intensity as all three play supremely if differently arrogant characters. They interpret with integrity and without showboating. Ian Barford -- familiar to Steppenwolf audiences, although not an ensemble member -- and Katrina Lenk complete the cast as Tamas and Anna, a betrothed peasant couple. Lenk's is the more complex role, as Anna also is Kristof's mistress and becomes a major Chekhovian force in the closing moments.

This is a handsome production. The expansive, solid set by James Schuette represents a courtyard terrace of the castle, its stone surfaces and earth tones warmly lit by Scott Zielinski. Malkovich designed (with Ana Kuzmanic) the period-accurate, nicely detailed costumes; the traveling culottes for Ilona are particularly imaginative, with the hems soiled from her tramp through the vineyards.

Johnson's direction is measured, sound, understanding, and a bit too solemn. The pace never flags and never bores, but there are moments of comedy unplayed, and the physical confrontation between Kristof and Miklos needs to be more explosive; it should have the audience on the edges of their seats, but it doesn't. Although Lost Land has no real lows, the highs aren't quite high enough. The issue is modulation, not interpretation.