Dianne Wiest in The Forest
(© Joan Marcus)
Dianne Wiest in The Forest
(© Joan Marcus)
Echoes of Shakespeare and Moliere and a foreshadowing of Anton Chekhov's plays are heard and seen in Alexander Ostrovsky's The Forest, currently playing at Classic Stage Company. Given how infrequently this 19th-century playwright's work reaches New York's stages, the production is a notable one, even though a host of excellent performances never fully mask the play's ungainly tonal shifts.

The Forest centers on Raisa (Dianne Wiest), a wealthy landowner who has taken in not only Aksyusha (Lisa Joyce), her poor niece, but also Bulanov (Adam Driver), the son of a noblewoman, who is in equally dire straits. Raisa has decided the two should marry, partly out of beneficence and partly out of selfishness as she is in love with Bulanov herself. Raisa's interest in the younger man, combined with her penuriousness in her business dealings with Vosmibratov (imbued with gregarious coarseness by Sam Tsoutsouvas), vividly bring to mind the comic male protagonists of Moliere's plays, and there's a decided joy to watching a familiar scenario unfold with genders reversed.

Even as Raisa is trying to pair these two off, her estranged nephew Gennady (John Douglas Thompson) and his compatriot Arkady (Tony Torn) arrive on the estate, disguised, respectively, as a retired military man and his valet. But they're actually both penniless actors, who've come hoping for a handout. Their presence stirs up trouble on the estate, though, and ultimately Raisa's true love is brought to light. So, too, is Aksyusha's; she's smitten with Pyotr (Quincy Dunn-Baker), Vosmibratov's son. And once these characters have retreated to woodlands that surround the estate, theatergoers may find themselves thinking of Shakespeare's frothier romantic comedies.

These plotlines, however, refuse to live comfortably next to one another or other elements of the play, such as long discussions about local politics (particularly tiresome in Kathleen Tolan's often stilted adaptation), and the love affair that arises between Arkady and Ulita (played with imperious pertness by Lizbeth Mackay), Raisa's busybody maid.

Unfortunately, director Brian Kulick's languorous staging never creates the necessary sense of unity between the play's disparate parts or the company's performance styles. In some instances, the actors' varied stagecraft makes sense. Wiest, bespectacled and wearing costume designer Marco Piemontese's sumptuous period gowns, resembles nothing more than a sweet old owl who may not be as wise as people presume. She presides over the action with subtle grace and just a hint of lustfulness.

At the other end of the spectrum -- but just as understandable -- is Thompson, who gives an over-the-top performance as the grandiose tragedian Gennady. The actor, who has made his mark in recent stagings of Othello and The Emperor Jones, seems to be having a terrific time parodying the sorts of performers who would chew scenery as these characters.

However, some of the other performances, while well-crafted, seem to be suited for completely different productions. For instance, Driver and Dunn-Baker play the young men with reserved naturalism while Joyce's turn as Aksyusha seems more suited to a period melodrama.

This love triangle, the estate's ancient retainer (played hilariously by John Christopher Jones), and Raisa's sale of the land to raise money certainly bring to mind aspects of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. And that's part of the fun of The Forest, seeing how this obscure work lives at a crossroads between the worlds of classic and modern drama.