Timothy Doyle, Frank Langella, and Alan Batesin Fortune's Fool(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Timothy Doyle, Frank Langella, and Alan Bates
in Fortune's Fool
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In a season already notable for scenery-chewing, two names can now be added to the list of chewers: Alan Bates and Frank Langella, who are co-starring in Mike Poulton's adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's Fortune's Fool. The flamboyant performers play, respectively, an impoverished fellow called Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin, who has long depended on the kindness of friends, and an epicene neighbor called Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov. It isn't often that two actors as eager to cut loose on stage get the chance to face off, but it happens here. And because it does, much of Fortune's Fool is an enthralling session of "Can You Top This?"

In Turgenev's long-neglected work, Bates as Kuzovkin and Langella as Tropatchov bump contending personalities on the day that Olga Petrovna (Enid Graham), now the mistress of the home where Kuzovkin has been a permanent guest, returns from St. Petersburg with her new husband, Paul (Benedick Bates). Since hospitality is the politeness of landowners, Olga and Paul don't even have time to oversee the unpacking before Tropatchov and a friend he calls Little Fish (Timothy Doyle) settle in for a meal. Badgered into joining them at table is Kuzovkin and his chess pal, Ivan Kuzmitch Ivanov (George Morfogen). While Paul gives every indication of being a commanding host, it's Tropatchov who takes charge of the meal; he provkes Kuzovkin to explain how he came to be a permanent resident rather than take possession of Vyetrovo, the nearby estate that he appears to have inherited rightfully.

Kuzovkin has long regarded himself as unimportant, particularly because the position he filled in his current home was as the master's fool. When Tropatchov goads him into reporting on the attenuated court case he hopes will result in his reclaiming Vyetrovo, he offers a bloated explanation that ends in ignominy. In retaliation for his humiliation, Kuzovkin not only dubs Tropatchov an "infamous, fatuous fop" -- an apt description -- but goes on to reveal a family secret of the sort that shouldn't be recapped in a review. (Not that it comes as a huge surprise.)

Fortune's Fool, which is really about the herculean effort often required to maintain one's dignity, has an interesting history. It was written in 1848, when Turgenev was 30 and developing his "superfluous man" theory about Russian society. Because the play's satirical look at the social classes was considered too bold, it was closed down after a few performances and then banned. When it was allowed to be done again, in 1861, only the first act was performed, which must have left audiences hanging uncomfortably in mid-air. More recently, Bates played a 1996 Poulton version of the tragicomedy, directed by Gale Edwards at Chichester; in it, the Tropatchov figure was more a vulgarian than a fop. Since that's very much not the case now, Poulton is apparently happy to fool around with the text whenever so moved.

Poulton seems to have remained true to Turgenev's consideration of what constitutes a true gentleman. There is much talk along those lines during the proceedings; shortly after the action begins, Kuzovkin says to Ivanov (whom he calls Vanya), "Never forget that we are gentlemen." Various definitions of "gentleman" are implied through the characters: Tropatchov lays claim to the title through his dress and refined speech, Paul through the conscientious execution of his duties, and Kuzovkin through his sensitivity to the feelings of others. Turgenev obviously believed that Kuzovkin most closely filled the complex bill. His thought is that a gentleman is not so much to the manor born as to the manners born.

The play doesn't concern itself deeply with the subject of class differences; the deferential below-stairs staff in Fortune's Fool appear to accept their lot equably. Rather, Turgenev focuses on the more domestic theme of parent-child relationships. (Kuzovkin and Olga recall being companions when she was a child and had yet to leave for St. Petersburg, where she spent her adolescence; her return awakens a paternal longing in Kuzovkin.) Since Turgenev worked in the middle of the 19th century, it shouldn't be surprising that he deals with this theme as if he were writing melodrama, including lots of hand-wringing and earnest confidential disclosures. Part of the second-half suspense hangs on whether Paul will understand the bond between his new wife and the buffoonish middle-aged family friend. If the play creaks, despite Poulton's contemporary ministrations, it's because this brand of dramaturgy is difficult to oil.

Since Fortune's Fool begins with a long-absent mistress returning to her family home, there is an initial Chekhovian glimmer to the play. But Turgenev, writing 50 or so years earlier, only hints that the days of the landed gentry are numbered; his people are not wrapped so much in the gloom of something coming to an end. They are livelier. This certainly applies to the French-spouting Tropatchov, although he may be more a figment of Poulton's imagination than Turgenev's.

The current production is directed by Arthur Penn, who hasn't been around Broadway for a while, with a kind of economical passion. And the enterprise is very much about the opportunities it offers Bates and Langella. Bates, wearing a rumpled black suit, would seem to have taken the more rumpled role -- that is, until he gets to the Vyetrovo saga and turns that windy speech into something approximating an acting triathlon. The timing, the use of his body, the garbling of his speech -- all of it adds up to five or six minutes of stage astonishment. What distinguishes Bates from peers who have mastered the craft of acting as well as he has is his ability to expose the workings of his heart; in the second act, when he tells Olga about his life as a young man on the estate and as a friend to Olga's unhappy mother, he is visibly moved and is therefore all the more moving.

An ensemble moment in Fortune's Fool(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
An ensemble moment in Fortune's Fool
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Langella has the flashier role -- or is it just that his clothes are flashier? He wears Jane Greenwood's pastel costumes with all the flair of a practiced dandy. He also uses his voice and body with a kind of control that paradoxically resembles total abandon. His warbled notes grace the air in the same way that his busy hands float on it. But Langella never misses a chance to show how destructive a society flibbertigibbet can be; he'll suddenly dart a mean look at the object of his off-handed cruelty or he'll inject anti-freeze into the words he's speaking. Langella brings droll subtlety to what in other hands might have been one-dimensional. His understanding of the hollow gentleman he plays is in everything he does, and that includes the set of his shoulders as he makes his last exit in social defeat.

Benedick Bates -- Alan Bates's son -- doesn't play Kuzovkin's son, as might be expected. Instead, he is the new head of the house, a man noticeably adept at balancing harsh duties with kind ones. This isn't a simple role, nor is it as predictably overbearing as at first it seems it will be. The younger Bates never stints it. Enid Graham is perfectly fine as Olga, a pleasant young woman not necessarily prepared for life's trickier moments; she also looks perfectly fine in more of Jane Greenwood's lovely ensembles. Tim Doyle cowers and caters nicely as Little Fish. And George Morfogen, who knows exactly what to do with his sad badger's eyes, demonstrates it's not how much an actor gets to say but how he says it that matters. Lola Pashalinski cannonades around the stage with authority as the head housekeeper, but Edwin C. Owens as the other servant supervisor is more raucous than seems called for.

The scenery that Bates and Langella chew so hungrily was supplied by John Arnone, and it's grand: a version of Russian country-home elegance that, along with Arnone's set for The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, puts him right up there with John Lee Beatty for excellence in architectural design and detail. The lighting design of Brian Nason and sound design of Brian Ronan are good, and Paul Huntley has given Graham a rather stunning, red wig that drapes like a lovely curtain.

Satisfactory as the entire production is, what will be longest remembered about it is Bates's stumbling around the stage, comically explaining to no one's edification why he'll never live in Vyetrovo. It's the true "bravo" segment.