Broadway is getting a double jolt of adrenaline with two lively new productions: Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country and Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions (real title "Les Parents Terribles," or the outrageous parents). Fascinating parallels abound: both are bitter comedies; both deal with self-destructing families with mothers whose passions are disastrously misdirected; both plays were initially banned by censors for immoral hanky-panky; both productions have offbeat, gutsy, smart and sexy stars, Helen Mirren and Kathleen Turner. Mirren, who has played everything from Shakespeare's Cleopatra to a rock star, received an Oscar nomination this year for "The Madness of King George," but is best known here for her TV role as Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in "Prime Suspect." This is her Broadway debut, and it's about time.
In Turgenev's 1850 play (which anticipated Chekhov 10 years before Chekhov was born) Mirren is Natalya Petrovna, mistress of a large estate. She's got a young son, a busy husband, a nubile teenage ward and a deadly case of that classic Russian virus, boredom. Enter a hunky young tutor, and Natalya makes a total fool of herself, tearing apart her family in the process. Like "Indiscretions," Targenev's play is an assault on romantic love. "Love is a calamity," says the permanent house guest Rakitin (Ron Rifkin), who's been helplessly adoring Natalya for years. The Russian censors couldn't allow someone to be in love with a married woman, so they banned the play's initial publication. "Rakitin is myself," said Turgenev. "I always portray myself as the unsuccessful lover."
This wonderfully appealing play, a comedy that oscillates between dark and bright, is tough to get in perfect focus. Scott Ellis's production for the Roundabout Theatre Company may not be definitive, but it's got a kind of welcome American energy instead of a faux-Continental attitude that often infects these Russian transplants. Among the 13 actors there are about nine different styles, but somehow that adds to the frazzled electricity of the production. The highest voltage comes from Mirren. Her depiction of the besotted, bewildered Natalya is like a portrait that magically keeps changing from classic to cubist. In her woundingly funny soliloquies she becomes a one-woman wrestling match between her passionate and practical selves.
Yvonne, the mother played by Kathleen Turner in "Indiscretions," has no practical self. She is an emotional mess, a "wet hen in a high wind" as she says, whose one driving force is love for her son, Michael (Jude Law). This love is hysterically incestuous, a fantasy of total possession that fuels the homosexual Cocteau's attack on the French bourgeois family. Stephen Brimson Lewis's brilliant sets and costumes reinforce this theme of psycho-emotional decadence.
The family living room is a landfill of dolls, teddy bears, old piles of laundry, bric-a-brac, whose focus is a huge bed on which the diabetic Yvonne, in perpetual night dress, lounges and flounces like a screwball Camille. Her husband, George (Roger Bees), is a failed inventor who dresses like a Jules Verne aviator and is secretly having an affair with a young woman, Madeleine (Cynthia Nixon). But Madeleine and son Michael have fallen in love, and this sets up a classic situation of black farce. Desperate to hold on to her beloved son, Yvonne turns to her sister Leonie (Eileen Arkins), the bastion of rationality in this "raggle-taggle gypsy" family. The middle of the three acts takes place in Maddy's loft, pivoting around a spiral staircase that turns the room into an emotional centrifuge in which the characters whirl in a vortex of deceit.
What might have been a dated "boulevard play"--the style Cocteau used to mold his dark themes- packs a surprising punch in Scan Mathias's fiendishly clever staging. Its extravagant theatricality could be called camp, but it's camp raised to a high level of brutally funny seriousness. French officials were shocked by Cocteau's concoction, and they booted it out of a state-owned theater in 1938. Seen now, the play resonates with a moral breakdown that was reflected in France's behavior under German occupation, It also reflects Cocteau's own inner conflicts: "I detest disorder," he wrote. "The fact is, I detest myself. I am disorder." Unlike the actors in "A Month in the Country," the superb cast works together like a perfect infernal machine. It's hard to play total psychic deliquescence, but Turner does just that. Her outbursts of rage, desperation and distorted desire are like emotional shrapnel blazing from an exploded heart. The final scene, a perverse Pieta that evokes incest, adultery and even necrophilia, is shocking even in a day when such themes are daytime entries in TV Guide.