Tolstoy's masterpiece Anna Karenina is a uniquely difficult novel to adapt into a play. It is a long and somewhat baggy affair that constantly swings between two contrasting main plots stitched within a broad quilting of Russian aristocratic life. One is a tempestuous tale of a woman (Anna) swept into impossible adultery with a noble but trifling military fop named Vronsky; the other is a much slower, more philosophic journey toward settled contentment by a landed gentleman and armchair lefty (Levin) who doubles for Tolstoy himself.
Director Chris Coleman and writer Kevin McKeon make of this a breezy and impressive stage spectacle of movement and costume. Distant, counterpoised scenes are staged together in the same tableau, with segues as easy as a shift of lighting. Where context is felt to be needed, the ensemble players become a Greek-style chorus and recite Tolstoy's narration from within the scene—a practice that feels like a cross between storytime for the audience and a spooky episode of Doctor Who in which the characters' minds have been hijacked by aliens.
Kelley Curran's Anna is a passionate creature built of regal, theatrical imperiousness. And while this is more appropriate to the weighty reputation of Tolstoy's novel than to the ingenuousness and unlikely youthfulness actually described in the book, it is nonetheless an effective dramatic shorthand in a play staged mostly for agility. Indeed, the first two-thirds of the play is timed mostly to the beats of comedy. Anna's husband, Karenin (Keith Jochim), for example, is broadly made into an entertainingly punctilious buffoon rather than a creature of pride and hollow capability—which makes his later rages and contritions difficult to fathom. The production's comedic gloss works best with Levin's radicalized brother Nikolai (Michael Mendelson), who steals every scene he's in with beautifully pained deadpan.
On the whole, the play's three hours waft quite amiably by in a show of finery and fine feeling; each scene performs its function quickly and efficiently before slipping into the next on a deft emotional turn or hammered punch line. And so Levin (James Farmer) is bewildered and decent, Kitty (Kayla Lian) is naive and warm-hearted, Stiva (R. Ward Duffy) is a caddish George Clooney, etc. But in the production's rush to create a sumptuous and friction-free experience of highly telegraphed gesture, the fundamental tragedy of Anna herself goes lost and must be forced into high-gloss, hallucinogenic spectacle.
It is, in the end, a sort of slide-show version of Karenina—a pleasant diversion that asks very little, but which contains a great many beautiful landscapes. And as the stage dims, so does the memory of it.
SEE IT: Anna Karenina is at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, noon Thursdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturdays-Sundays. Through May 6. $34-$64.