On a country estate in mid-19th century Russia, the aristocrats play cards, drink vodka, take snuff and philosophize, the servants do all the work, and everybody is imprisoned in a private hell of unrequited love.
If this description of Patrick Marber’s “Three Days in the Country,” which is having its West Coast premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company, sounds like a Chekhov play, that’s not a coincidence. It’s an adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s play “A Month in the Country,” first published in 1855, which, legend has it, inspired Chekhov to write for the stage. “A Month” preceded Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by nearly 50 years, but its setting, motifs and characters, as well as its tone of comical despair, clearly took hold of the younger writer’s imagination.
Marber, an award-winning playwright (“After Miss Julie,” “The Red Lion”) and screenwriter (“Notes on a Scandal”) condensed Turgenev’s action so that it unfolds over three days instead of a month, cutting back the marathon running time to two hours. In the process, he tightened up the banter and sight gags to satisfy a sitcom-soaked audience without resorting to glaring anachronisms.
These updates make “Three Days” a perfect script for Antaeus Theatre Company, which specializes in dusting off classics to reveal their timeless resonance. Director Andrew Paul (who is new to Antaeus but who directed the U.S. premiere of “Three Days” in Pittsburgh) taps into the playwrights’ attitude toward human folly — a sort of exasperated affection — and gets both well paced ensemble work and charming solo turns from his strong cast. (There are actually two casts, “The Blunderers” and “The Assassins,” that alternate performances; I saw “The Assassins.”)
Anna Khaja stars as Natalya, a passionate woman past her first youth. Her wealthy husband, Arkady (Daniel Blinkoff), a gentleman farmer, bores her. So does her would-be lover, Rakitin (Corey Brill), whom she strings along and forces to listen to her swoony fantasies about her son’s tutor, the hunky Belyaev (Peter Mendoza).
Both Vera, Natalya’s teenage ward (Chelsea Kurtz), and a sexy maid named Katya (Ellis Greer) are also in love with Belyaev, who is not only the most attractive man on the horizon but also just about the only one. Katya throws over her feeble fiancé to canoodle with him in a cupboard known as “the place of assignation” — a feature, we learn, of every Russian country estate. Sweet, innocent Vera’s only other prospect is an ancient, socially insecure neighbor, Bolshintsov (Alberto Isaac).
Nobody really means to fall in love with the wrong person, the play implies — it’s just that there’s nothing else to do and no one else around. As Rakitin, Brill seems painfully aware that he is the “superfluous man” — a trope of pre-Revolutionary Russian literature, upper class, jobless and bored out of his skull — in the proceedings. He may not have chosen the role, but he’s got it, and he endures its humiliations with gritted teeth and an ever-more-biting sarcasm that nobody onstage seems to notice.
Failed courtship isn’t only for the young here. Harry Groener and Dawn Didawick, married to one another in real life, make the most of a deliciously unromantic scene in which an elderly doctor, Shpigelsky, proposes to a snuff-addicted spinster, Lizaveta. In between back spasms, Shpigelsky presents his dubious qualifications and unenticing expectations for marriage: Not only is he “a bad doctor” and a “ruthless social chameleon,” he tells her, but in the comfort of his own home he’s also brusque, antisocial and demanding.
The pleasure these talented veterans take in the scene is contagious. Groener makes Shpigelsky’s counterintuitive proposition so delightful that you can’t help hoping that Lizaveta will say what the heck — which she seems disposed to do, at least until he demands that she give up snuff. The words she eventually uses to turn him down — “I can live with my unhappiness. I don’t want to live with yours” — not only sum up the spirit of Russian literature but also could be useful for all of us to keep on hand, in case of unwelcome propositions.
“Three Days in the Country”
Where: Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 26
Info: (818) 506-1983 or www.Antaeus.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes