“I think I’ll fall in love until I’m 70,” gushes Raisa, the rich, greedy, delusional grande dame presiding over a Russian estate that everyone wants in on in The Forest, and only an actress like Dianne Wiest could put over a line like that without inviting a smirk. The trouble with Brian Kulick’s herky-jerky production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s Russian comic drama (dutifully translated by Kathleen Tolan) is that it’s never quite sure what to do with this great actress. Alternately fidgety and dead-serious, Wiest is literally all over the place—wringing her hands while pacing CSC’s three-fourth circle environs, laying flat on a dining table, descending Santo Loquasto’s Tim Burton-like movable wooden staircase—and that is the major problem here. Everything is always funnier, and conversely more dramatic, when one simply stands still.
This sense of overactivity hinders some lovely passages; it’s almost as if the audience would be deemed bored if people didn’t throw themselves about. (Adam Driver, playing Wiest’s would-be boy suitor, flails about to rather annoying effect.) The characters have names fitting for Chekhov (whom Ostrovsky prefigured, actually), though the proceedings more closely echo Shakespearean comedy (traveling actors who hold life’s wizened secrets, misplaced affections, stiff-lipped proclamations of offing oneself), and once in a while, The Forest fits comfortably in this realm, never more so than when John Douglas Thompson (The Emperor Jones), a man for whom any kind of verse was born, seizes the stage. Playing the scene-stealing tragedian (his character’s own self-referral) Gennady, Raisa’s stage-born nephew, Thompson knows how to make the crucial transitions without resorting to heavy gestures—quite ironic given that he plays the role meant to be the most flagrant.
Unevenness eventually rules, however, and unless you’re the type who becomes ecstatic over period garb (Wiest does wear a few kick-ass gowns, designed by Marco Piemontese) and tasteful but ever-so-quietly wearying shell-gaming, this Forest might not be the most inhabitable.
The Forest is now playing at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th St.) in New York City through May 30. Schedule: Tue-Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2pm. Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, one intermission.