Before discussing the Guthrie’s new play, The Primrose Path, I must admit up front that I have a strong Turgenev bias. In my college Russian Literature class, we slogged through Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, enduring their endless existential agonies as instructed. But it wasn’t until we read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons that I stopped thinking of Russian life as a slow kind of suicide, with the primary instrument of torture being the boring conversation.
Ever since then, Turgenev has been my Russian author of choice, and every time the subject of Russian literature comes up a party—which is to say, never—I take (or would, if it ever happened) the opportunity to declare that a severe historical injustice has been done to my favorite Russian author, in that neither Kiera Knightley nor HBO has seen fit to bring any of his books to life on the big or little screen.
The Guthrie has taken a small step toward righting this tragic wrong by producing an adaptation of Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, written by Crispin Whittell and directed by Roger Rees, who is better known to my generation as Robin Colcord from Cheers. Exactly why the play is called The Primrose Path and not Home of the Gentry is no mystery: It’s part of the grand tradition of trying to make something sound better in the hope that people will buy more tickets. The word “gentry” is antiquated, for sure, so it makes sense to substitute a word that resonates more deeply with contemporary audiences. You know, a word like “primrose.”
I don’t know what to make of the fact that The Primrose Path is the title of Bram Stoker’s first novel, or that it’s also the title of a 1940 film starring Ginger Rogers. Nothing, probably. Turgenev wrote in the first half of the 19th century, and there is no record of him having a crystal ball strong enough to see 100 years into the future. So we must assume that it refers to the phrase, “walking down the primrose path,” which basically means leading a life of privileged leisure. (For you theater trivia nuts, the title also references a little speech by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.)
But I digress. Another admission: The sole reason I became a Turgenev fanatic in the first place is that he, unlike so many of his gloomy brethren, has a wicked sense of humor. If you know anything about Turgenev, The Primrose Path is actually a decent title because one of his favorite literary themes is making fun of upper-class pretentiousness. It’s an easy target, of course, but Turgenev is an extraordinarily accurate shot, and playwright Crispin Whittell has sharpened the great man’s aim further still in this—well, crisp is the word I want to use—adaptation.
Plotwise, there is nothing particularly original about The Primrose Path. It’s such a familiar story as to be almost cliché: The prodigal son returns home to find that a girl he once knew has grown into a lovely woman. He falls in love with her, but she’s all-but-betrothed to another. She falls in love with him too, but—darn the luck—he’s married. There’s a lot of talk about how one should only marry for love, and how love is the most important thing in life, even if it makes you miserable. But it’s the jokes that make this a play worth seeing.
The truth is, The Primrose Path owes more to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw than anyone in the Russian writing camp. It’s basically a parlor room play with lots of witty banter, a la The Importance of Being Earnest. The jokes fly fast and furious from the beginning, and we have been mercifully spared from anyone speaking English in a faux Russian accent. The closest it gets is people speaking French in a deliberately awful accent. But that’s funny, because it’s all about making fun of Russians who think anything French is automatically more sophisticated than anything their country has to offer.
The great thing is, the families involved in the play are supposed to be Russian aristocrats, but you know these people. They are the idiots at the party who combine tremendous arrogance with astonishing stupidity, but who get away with it because they have inherited money or a station in life that they did not earn. For instance, Sally Wingert’s character is an overbearing, empty-headed matriarch whose machinations on behalf of her daughter are clumsy in the extreme. But it’s wonderful to watch Wingert mine the territory between haughtiness and desperation for one nugget of comic gold after another. Likewise, many of the other characters possess a droll wit that livens up just about every conversation. A sample: “How was church?” The reply: “It was very long, and so perfect practice for eternity.”
On another level, playwright Whittell and director Rees are also clearly amusing themselves—and audience members who get it—by making subtle fun of the more familiar tropes in Russian literature: namely the endless misery, suffering, sadness, and oppression. These are upper-class families, for instance, but there is no food, so when a salami goes missing it turns into a hilarious catastrophe. These people are not miserable, either, they’re just bored, and so they are desperate for sustenance of another kind: gossip.
If you’re on the fence about seeing The Primrose Path because it’s a “Russian” play, you owe it to yourself to see it and discover that not every Russian story is an existential soul-sucker. This one is as light and lively as they come, and virtually every scene contains quips and barbs you’ll be tempted to write down for future reference. It’s a new play, so of course there are scenes that could be tightened and a few false moments that could be improved, but as I said, my Turgenev bias inclines me to forgive these shortcomings.
HBO, Kiera—you’re seriously missing out.
The Primrose Path continues at The Guthrie Theater through June 15