Lost Land

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Some plays are like a good stiff drink, knocking you flat. Some exhilarate, like a glass of bubbly. And some need to be savored slowly, like a fine wine. Lost Land is such a play. Subtle and bittersweet, it doesn’t enrage or thrill or make you howl with laughter or rouse you with its erotic heat. But audiences willing to engage this tragicomedy on its own terms will find that it lingers in the mind. The language is literate, the wit droll. The sexual elements are potent though understated. The characters–enigmatic fools in a Chekhovian vein–are finely played.

This world premiere is a collaboration by lead actor John Malkovich and two Brits, playwright Stephen Jeffreys and director Terry Johnson–the same trio who gave Chicago audiences The Libertine at Steppenwolf almost a decade ago. That drama recounted the life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the 17th-century poet whose profane verse punctured the hypocrisy of his society. (Johnny Depp stars in the film version, due for release later this year, and Malkovich appears in a juicy supporting part.)

In Lost Land as in The Libertine, Malkovich stars as a moody, conflicted aristocrat. Count Kristof is a middle-aged Hungarian–a former hussar and politician–who’s retreated to his isolated castle in the mountains. Famed for having brought his nation’s antiquated railway system into the 20th century, he’s now obsessed with the family business: growing grapes and making Tokay–“the king of wines, the wine of kings,” in the words of Louis XIV. But when a mysterious cavalry officer named Miklos (Yasen Peyankov) invites the count to help form a new, liberal government, Kristof can’t resist. It’s 1918, in the waning months of a world war Hungary and its allies are losing. Hungary needs visionary leaders to defend its autonomy against both the Western democracies and communist Russia. Budapest beckons.

Kristof is a man of many contradictions. A wealthy landowner, he wants to return to his peasant farmers the land his father stole. A widower, he expresses his grief in a romance with his late wife’s servant (Katrina Lenk), who dresses up as the deceased countess for their liaisons. A political liberal, he clings to time-honored traditions of male supremacy. He grudgingly allows his steely, efficient sister, Ilona (Martha Lavey), to supervise the vineyards but refuses her any say in how the estate is run. “I have the land,” he insists, “and she has her opinions.” So when Kristof decides to reenter government service, he entrusts control of the family business not to Ilona but to Miklos–a man he’s just met–entirely on the strength of a handshake between “Hungarian gentlemen.”

Unlike The Libertine’s Rochester, Kristof is fictional. But he’s inspired by a fascinating historical figure: Count Mihaly Karolyi, a statesman who served a few months as president of an independent Hungarian republic in the wake of World War I. Karolyi’s government crumbled and with it his hopes for a better world. The idealistic Kristof’s dreams are smashed too. He and the Machiavellian Miklos become personal and political antagonists, but they’re also alike. Each sees himself as a man of destiny, duty bound to save his beloved fatherland in a time of tumult. The price they pay for their ambitions dictates the twists and turns of the drama’s climax.

The biggest flaw in Lost Land is its reliance on exposition to familiarize audiences with the tangled politics behind the story. These passages are impressively concise and carefully worded but inevitably alienating. Still, as in Greek tragedy or Shakespearean drama, the descriptions of offstage events set up some compelling onstage action as we watch the relationship between Kristof and Miklos transform from trust to treachery. Challenging traditional expectations, the sympathetic Kristof is played by Malkovich as intelligent but ineffectual–a pallid opponent for Peyankov’s vital, charismatic schemer Miklos.

Best of all is Lavey, whose responses to the shifting psychological terrain reflect our own. The production’s highlight is the opening scene of act two, Ilona’s long monologue about her sexual liaison with Miklos, a man she despises (“Is this all there is to sin? If so, why had I been trained to fear it so?”), followed by her first real encounter with wine. A religious woman who’s devoted her life to her vineyards, Ilona takes pride in her wine-tasting skills but has never actually drunk the stuff. Now she guzzles it, putting all her pent-up passion–as a woman of privilege but no rights, a person of prim 19th-century values suddenly possessed by Dionysian ecstasy–into swallowing the hallowed “national treasure.”

Though Jeffreys doesn’t press it, there’s an odd contemporary resonance in Lost Land. Substitute oil for wine and religious sectarianism for ethnic factionalism, and the play can be read as a cautionary tale about America’s Middle East adventures: this is the story of two rivals in a distant, insular society trying to manipulate U.S. attempts to instill Western-style democracy. “There has never been a time when the lessons of history taught us less,” Miklos arrogantly declares. That attitude–espoused by all too many self-styled men of destiny–guarantees that history will repeat itself again and again.

When: Through 6/5: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM. Wed 5/18, 5/25, and 6/1, 2 and 7:30 PM. Sun 5/22, 5/29, and 6/5, 3 PM only.

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $45-$60

Info: 312-335-1650 (TTY 312-335-3830)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.