The inspiration for About Love is Ivan Turgenev’s First Love, one of the greatest of all novellas. Subtitled “a play with songs and music,” that is exactly what it is: a dramatic presentation with five songs and underscoring by jazz musician and composer Nancy Harrow. However, unlike Harrow’s adaptation of Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, retitled For the Last Time, director Will Pomerantz’s text appears to be taken directly from a translation from the original Russian without anything additional. The lovely show is best described as story theater in which all of the characters narrate at one time or another, at times alternating a single event, and all but the hero and heroine playing multiple roles. If one is looking for a musical, this is not it, but it eventually is a captivating staging of the story, if a bit on the long side.
About Love recounts the memories of Peter Voluntiev (played by Jeffrey Kringer) told in the first person in retrospect 20 years later. The summer that he was 16, he and his parents spent three months in a rented country house outside of Moscow. Expecting to be bored as he studied for his exams, Peter is pleased to discover that a Princess (Helen Coxe), impoverish and uncultured, but with a beautiful 21-year-old daughter Zina (Silvia Bond), live in the small cottage next door. Delivering a message from his mother to the Princess, Peter is introduced to the charming Zina who immediately appropriates him for her evening soirées with her four suitors and her provocative games. Peter falls head over heels in love with her, particularly after a game in which he gets to kiss her. Although she toys with his affections as though he were a child and turns moody at times, he cannot avoid his infatuation with her or keep away.
Peter cannot discern who is Zina’s favorite among the nightly suitors: the malicious Count Malevsky (Helen Coxe), the cynical Dr. Lushin (Dan Domingues), the formal Captain Markov (Tom Patterson), or the flowery poet Maidonov (Jean Tafler). However, Zina teases them with hints of another favorite, and the lovelorn Peter decides to spy on her at night and find out who it is. Not only is he shocked when he discovers the identity of her lover, it is the end of his innocence. However, he does not think any the less of either of them though he feels somewhat betrayed. In the meantime, Peter’s parents begin arguing and eventually they move back to Moscow quite suddenly. Peter thinks he will never see Zina again but events prove him to be quite wrong. The story is based on Turgenev’s own youth and it is the most autobiographical of his fictional works.
Played by a four-piece chamber orchestra (guitar, bass, drums and violin), the five songs by Harrow are a combination of Russian themes crossed with low key jazzy blues, while the simple, unsophisticated lyrics suggest the characters might have written them themselves. While Pomerantz’s script appears to have simply lifted Turgenev’s narration and dialogue, his staging and direction is both clever and astute, with actors stepping forward to narrate their episodes. The actors quickly change Whitney Locher’s suitably period costumes in full view of the audience by adding pieces that define their roles, turning them into the new characters effortlessly. Brian C. Staton’s minimal set is fine for the story theater aspect of the presentation, which normally uses few props or furniture. A raised wooden platform, surrounded by birch trees, includes only a few chairs which stand in for various scenic effects. The subtle lighting by Allen Hahn approximates both day and evening effects.
The cast is generally proficient at their various roles. Kringer is innocence personified as the sixteen year old who has his first encounter with love. While Bond is utterly charming as Zina, she does not display the charisma that would make men fall at her feet. Domingues is amusing as the worldly doctor, the Princess’ impudent butler Vonifaty and the Voluntiev’s gossipy servant Dmitri. Coxe is quite different as both the déclassé and vulgar Princess and the Count with a malicious streak. In the hands of Tom Patterson, his Captain Markov is very solemn and proper, while as Peter’s Father he seems rather ironic and secretive, alternating between being a big brother to his son and ignoring him completely. Jean Tafler as Peter’s Mother seems to be more and more cranky and tense as the summer goes on, while her poet Maidonov is very solicitous of Zina even when the object of his affection is sarcastic to him.
Turgenev’s First Love has been often dramatized as well as filmed in various languages. This version is quite delightful even though it does not seem to go far enough as to making it a musicalization, having only a handful of songs. However, once the audience gets used to the story theater narrative, the fine cast is fully up to the task of telling and dramatizing Turgenev’s tale. Eventually, About Love casts its spell as Peter loses his childish illusions about the course of amorous pursuits. It is to be hoped that Harrow expands her lovely score into a full length musical version at some time in the future.
About Love (through March 11, 2020)
The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleecker Street at the corner of Elizabeth Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.SheenCenter.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission