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‘About Love’ Review: Turgenev With Songs and Heartbreak

The work of translation that is theater — scripted dialogue and scored music transcribed via performance, design and direction — is tricky. That’s even more so when the original material is already a work in translation. Case in point: the Culture Project’s unsteady production of “About Love,” which awkwardly wrestles “First Love,” a novella by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, to the stage of the Sheen Center.

Peter (Jeffrey Kringer), a 16-year-old vacationing with his parents in the Russian countryside, encounters the mesmerizing 21-year-old Zina (Silvia Bond). Trailed by a herd of male admirers, she is staying with her mother, a snuff-sniffing princess beleaguered by debts, in the shabby cottage next door. Peter spends the summer vying with other suitors for Zina’s attention, but soon discovers that her affections lie elsewhere. When he learns the truth, he reflects on the emotional hurly-burly of love and the injury of his first heartbreak.

In his script, Will Pomerantz, who also directs, sticks to the plot but struggles to capture the most intriguing aspects of the novella.

Taken alone, Turgenev’s story isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. But his similes and syntax — sentences that build tension through accumulation, creating a messy sense of overflow — conjure the tempestuousness of a teenage love.

“My blood was in a ferment within me, my heart was full of longing, sweetly and foolishly; I was all expectancy and wonder; I was tremulous and waiting; my fancy fluttered and circled about the same images like martins round a bell-tower at dawn; I dreamed and was sad and sometimes cried,” reads one passage in the translation by Isaiah Berlin.

In “About Love,” such sentiments are dimmed and ironed out: “I remember feeling the blood rushing through my veins, and I was often in a strange melancholy, which felt both delightful and absurd,” Peter announces.

In a self-conscious touch that ultimately proves scattered, his and many other pieces of narration hot-potato from actor to actor as they crisscross the stage. Pomerantz may be attempting to shake up the written work, but the gesture is more gimmicky than complex. (At least Brian C. Staton’s stage design, a wooden-planked platform with a smattering of old furniture and trunks of dead birches littered around the space, doesn’t overstate itself.)

Billed as “a play with songs and music” rather than a full-fledged musical, the production, with a cast of six plus four musicians, seems to want to have its Russian tea cake and eat it too. The six numbers, with music by Nancy Harrow, are short, more appetizers than entrees. A somber, trilling violin speaks to the Russian setting, but Harrow mashes up the Motherland with the Big Easy, abruptly inserting jazz-inspired numbers as well.

Kringer’s Peter, adorable if a bit hokey in his youthfulness, has a fittingly romantic voice. Jazz may suit her character’s temperament, but Bond’s tidy rendition of “A Little Blue” lacks swing and swell.

Otherwise, she is magnetic in the role: persuasive, mercurial and occasionally cruel. Dan Domingues, who appears both as a gruff Lurch-like butler and a wise doctor also courting Zina, is another standout.

“What an exciting girl that Zinochka is!” Gustav Flaubert wrote in a letter to Turgenev, responding to the love object in the novella. “About Love,” by contrast, is mostly earnest. Something has been lost in translation.

About Love
Through March 22 at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, Manhattan; 212-925-2812, sheencenter.org. Running time: 1 hours 35 minutes.

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