`The Forest` satirizes star-crossed love

New York: Young lovers kept apart by uncaring, controlling adults; it`s a familiar story.

Yet 19th-century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky added irony and depth to his 1870 social satire of star-crossed love, "The Forest," being revived off-Broadway by the Classic Stage Company.

Kathleen Tolan`s playful adaptation has been staged with insightful spareness by director Brian Kulick.

The inimitable Dianne Wiest portrays wealthy landowner Raisa Pavlovna, a conniving, middle-aged widow in a male-dominated world. Raisa alternately presents a steely, manipulative persona, then switches to a dainty, feminine demeanor, especially when doing business with men.

Flashing sly charm and sugary smiles that swiftly fade, Wiest masterfully reveals her character`s artifice. Typical of the hypocrisy Ostrovsky was puncturing, Raisa frequently proclaims her own generosity while maintaining a viselike grip on her money box.

Selfishly, she deforests her land for cash and orchestrates the fates of two impoverished young people in her charge for her own ends, rudely treating her dependent niece, Aksyusha, as a disposable chess piece.

Adam Driver is suitably callow as a doltish youth whom Raisa inexplicably adores. Lisa Joyce lends a sullen modernity to the lovelorn Aksyusha, who can barely speak civilly to her domineering aunt. Pyotr, her true beloved, is played with youthful earnestness by Quincy Dunn-Baker.

Raisa`s wicked-stepmother approach to domestic life is challenged by the unexpected arrival of two outsize characters, traveling actors out of work, whose wry observations about working in the theater provide a refreshing contrast to stuffy manor life.

John Douglas Thompson resonates as Gennady, a flamboyant tragedian and a long-absent nephew of Raisa. Thompson`s grandiose delivery adds charm to Gennady`s basic decency, which soon collides with Raisa`s grasping duplicity. Tony Torn amiably portrays Gennady`s companion, Arkady, a good-natured but troublesome comedic performer.

John Christopher Jones gets constant laughs with his deliberate snail`s pace and flat cadence as Karp, the butler. Lizbeth Mackay as housekeeper Ulita never stops darting about, nervously spying for secrets that will give her an advantage with her capricious mistress.

Other accomplished performers include George Morfogen and Herb Foster as a pair of smug, wealthy neighbors concerned that societal changes are producing "too much freedom" for common people and women. Sam Tsoutsouvas robustly represents the emerging business class as a rapacious timber merchant.

Santo Loquasto`s ironic "forest" backdrop, planed boards splashed with green, is menacingly arrayed above the stage. The uncluttered set also features a large, rustic wooden bridge and stairway that give a boost to all the outdoor scenes.

Every character is free to unknowingly present his or her most foolish side, as this excellent cast enacts Ostrovsky`s amusing caricature of a hypocritical society in flux.

"The Forest" runs through May 30.

Bureau Report