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Wiest’s Miserly Russian; Buckley’s Brave Matron: John Simon

Actors Dianne Wiest and John Douglas Thompson
Actors Dianne Wiest and John Douglas Thompson in a scene from the play "The Forest" in New York. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Publicity Office via Bloomberg

“The Forest,” a serious comedy by Aleksandr Ostrovsky (1823-86), goes some way to rectify a neglect that has limited the Russian dramatist’s American reputation to “The Storm,” on which Janacek based his magnificent opera, “Katya Kabanova.”

The Classic Stage Company’s off-Broadway revival of “The Forest” -- in Kathleen Tolan’s intelligent adaptation and Brian Kulick’s energetic, if sometimes overheated direction -- may not hold you enraptured. Still, you will be grateful for a play that not only entertains but also makes you think.

We have here the miserly landowner and fiftyish widow Raisa, intricately embodied by the chameleon Dianne Wiest, who has adopted a young college dropout, Bulanov (Adam Driver) as well as an impoverished relative, Aksyusha (Lisa Joyce), whom she grooms for spouses before herself falling for Bulanov.

A neighboring timber merchant, Vosmibratov (Sam Tsoutsouvas), is haggling with Raisa over a piece of her forest while his son, Pyotr (Quincy Dunn-Baker), has become Aksyusha’s clandestine platonic lover.

Raisa’s nephew by marriage, Gennady, supposedly a peripatetic officer but actually a down-at-heel itinerant tragedian (John Douglas Thompson), comes to visit, along with Arkady (Tony Torn), a strolling comedian colleague, acting as his valet.

There are amorous complications, suicide attempts and thorny money matters to keep the plot moving, as do two servants: the nattering Karp (John Christopher Jones) and spying Ulita (Lizbeth MacKay).

Everyone acts compellingly on Santo Loquasto’s wonderfully stylized set, sensitively lit by Peter Kaczorowski, and in slightly too colorful costumes by Marco Piemontese.

At 136 E. 13th St. Information: +1-212-352-3101. Rating: **1/2

‘White’s Lies’

There are plays whose only real interest rests in their having opened at all. Such a one is Ben Andron’s “White’s Lies.”

Joe White, divorce lawyer, confirmed bachelor, womanizer and consummate liar, is told by his mother (Betty Buckley, the star name here) that she is dying of cancer with one regret -- not having been a grandmother. But, as luck or crude writing would have it, up shows Barbara, Joe’s high-school girlfriend, seeking his services in a divorce.

Barbara (the quite good Andrea Grano) has a 25-year-old daughter, Michelle (the quite limited Christy Carlson Romano), who, though not Joe’s daughter, can pass for one and make Mother White die happy.

Cheap Tricks

Quicker than you can say ho-hum, Joe and Michelle fall in love and into bed, despite a vague odor of titillating incest, and Barbara’s Joe-hating determination to keep them apart. Meanwhile Joe has a law partner, Alan, who, played by Peter Scolari, wallows in the oldest and cheapest tricks under Bob Cline’s desperately dog-eared direction. In due time, Alan will (most unconvincingly) service Barbara.

Joe also has an assistant, Mark, who, played by Jimmy Ray Bennett, performs every camp maneuver just short of drag, and also camps up two further parts. There is too Rena Strober, who plays several women as hammily as Cline can direct them.

That Tuc Watkins should undertake Joe White is remotely explicable by its being a lead role and allowing repeated display of his manly chest. I can also regrettably understand Scolari’s delight in doing everything short of dropping his pants. But why Buckley?

Well, as a musical-comedy diva, she must have been flatteringly tempted by a nonsinging role, and, true enough, she smartly plays Mrs. White with a certain built-in alienation effect that allows her to salvage a modicum of dignity.

At New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200. Rating: *

What the Stars Mean:
****       Do Not Miss
***        Excellent
**         Good
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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