Even though he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, we don’t hear much, these days, about the Russian poet and novelist Ivan Bunin (1870–1953), who spent the last third of his life in exile, living in Paris. Much admired in his time—he was respected by both Chekhov and Gorky—he projected into his works a clinical aloofness that comes in part from his impoverished aristocratic background and in part from his being that very modern phenomenon, a chronic loner.
Bunin’s quirky, jaggedly fragmented 1922 short story “In Paris,” adapted by the Russian director Dmitry Krymov into an 85-minute piece, seen here as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, tells, in an elliptical manner, a terse, bittersweet version of an all-too-familiar anecdote: the brief encounter of two lonely, displaced souls who momentarily find a sense of home in each other’s arms. This being a Russian version, the anecdote ends unhappily. But its bittersweet terseness, evoking a wide range of feelings in a few short pages, is more the point than its tragicomic finish. All loves and all lives end in death; it’s what you experience before that matters.
Unhappily, Krymov’s way of conveying the “before” was a model of contemporary directorial distrust for his source’s words—a piece of mannerist, try-everything staging that pretty much drowned Bunin’s simple narrative of an aging White Russian general (Mikhail Baryshnikov), alone in Paris, who strikes up an acquaintance with a fresh-faced young Russian waitress (Anna Sinyakina) in an exiles’ café. Both homesick, both regretting the absence of spouses elsewhere, they fall into an attachment that, as Bunin narrates it, briefly blooms and then abruptly ends.
Such sparseness clearly didn’t suffice for Krymov. He might have relied on his two charismatic performers—for Sinyakina’s beauty and emotional clarity made her a strong match for Baryshnikov’s rivetingly assured and charming physical presence. Instead, Krymov loaded down the little tale in a flood of gadgetry: moving scenery, film and still projections, audience intrusions, laborious slapstick bits with recalcitrant objects, flying, puppetry—you name it. This mostly provided the opposite of illumination; only the musical underscoring, by Dmitry Volkov (who also appeared), was constantly apt. At the end, Baryshnikov’s fans got a brief chance to see him dancing (choreography by Alexei Ratmansky), to an aria from Carmen that has extra cultural significance for Russians (it’s an adaptation of a lyric by Pushkin), but almost none for the story Bunin was telling.