Newsday, October 23, 1992

"Refracting Russia Through the Present"
by Julius Novick

NOTHING SACRED. By George F. Walker. Directed by Max Mayer. Set design by David Gallo. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Costume Design by Harry Nadal. At the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St., Manhattan. Seen Sunday.

"There's always a risk in meddling in other people's affairs," says Bazarov, the central character of "Nothing Sacred," by George F. Walker. It is a risk, however, that Bazarov seems permanently willing to take. As the play begins, he stops a bailiff from beating a thief, even though thief and bailiff both understand the beating as part of the natural order of things. (The place is Russia, the time 1859.) Bazarov even goes so far as to propose marriage to his friend Arkady's father's mistress, just in order to stimulate Arkady's father to do likewise. And he causes Arkady's Uncle Pavel to challenge him to a duel.

Lovers of Russian fiction will be aware by this point that "Nothing Sacred" must be, as indeed it is, a dramatization of Turgenev's famous novel, "Fathers and Sons." I cannot assess the play's fidelity to its source, but I can report that as a free-standing theater piece it is pervasively implausible, sometimes confusing, yet always alive and entertaining.

Bazarov, its mainspring, is almost a Bernard Shaw hero, let loose in the Russian countryside: a mocker, an ironist, a challenger of conventional values. "Let's strip the veneer from these gentle country parents," he says to Arkady. He is a professed revolutionist: "I look at the world and think of ways of taking it all apart and starting again from scratch."

But Bazarov is crueler and more destructive than any of Shaw's heroes. Like some American revolutionaries of a few decades ago (and whatever happened to them?), he is more interested in tearing down than in rebuilding. On his deathbed, he says to a group of peasants, "Yes, I was right. You are the . . . the future," says one. "The dirt under his shoe," says another.

Bazarov patronizes, manipulates, humiliates and insults nearly everyone he meets. When a comment of Arkady's offends him, he replies, "If you continue to say things like that to me, one day I might bite your lips off." The longer the play lasts, the harder it is to see how Arkady can stand him, though theirs is the central relationship of the play. Yet, Bazarov's keenness and originality of mind, his courage both intellectual and physical, his absolute (and very Shavian) shamelessness, lend him a kind of fascination when viewed from the safe distance of a theater seat.

In the Atlantic Theater Company's production, Clark Gregg plays Bazarov strongly and rigorously, with impregnable self-assurance and a knife-edged grin (although his clipped, staccato line-readings could use some variation). Unfortunately, however, Gregg looks at least 30, while Matt McGrath, who plays Arkady, looks about 16, which makes it difficult to believe the two of them have just been university students together. McGrath can play unhappy teenagers skillfully, but in this role he is impossibly callow (even for Arkady).

Heidi Kling is smashingly beautiful and formidably poised, though a little under-energized, as the self-possessed young widow, Bazarov's mistress, with whom Arkady falls in love (an aspect of the plot that never becomes entirely,clear).

The evening's finest performance comes from Larry Bryggman, who plays Arkady's foppish Uncle Pavel, the duelist, as a nearsighted blond penguin, a fool but somehow not just a fool.

Neither the author of "Nothing Sacred" nor Max Mayer, the director, seems much interested in pre-revolutionary local Russian color. There is no talk of samovars, or versts, or the deliberations of the local zemstvo; the language has a late-20th-Century crispness. "Let's do it," says Bazarov impatiently, when the preliminaries for the duel drag on too long to suit him.

David Gallo's set is a neutral platform backed by skeletal doorways and a vaguely painted view of fields and hills; it serves for both interior and exterior scenes. When a forest is needed, strips of white fabric, painted to look like birch-tree trunks, descend from above. The costumes by Harry Nadal are mainly based on period styles, but Bazarov's old coat would not look out of place in the seedier purlieus of present-day Manhattan. Since literal versimilitude is not attempted, its absence is not missed (except perhaps in a few unconvincing outbreaks of violence).

"Nothing Sacred" gives us old Russia refracted through modern North American sensibilities. (Walker is a Canadian.) It provokes uneasy thought about oppression and revolution, stasis and change. It is the next best thing to a play that somebody ought to write, about Bazarov's adventures here and now.

Copyright 1992 Newsday, Inc.