Other incidents in Lin’s tale, which is centered on Putin’s obsessive persecution of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke), bear the earmarks of Shakespeare-proven devices. One of these depicts the ghost of an assassinated provincial mayor (Elliott Bales), wandering into Khodorkovsky’s prison cell, still bearing his grotesque fatal head wound, to torment the inmate with the memories of his incriminating transgressions.
For all the theatrical window dressing that Lin applies to this drama out of Russia’s brutal recent history, though, “Kleptocracy” lacks a vital element: a central character for whom an audience might feel something. Woertendyke’s Khodorkovsky — based on the oligarch turned political dissident of that name who served 10 years in Putin’s jails on reputedly manufactured charges — is sketched as a telling case study, rather than as a man whose passions and contradictions intrigue you. He’s the receptacle for what’s portrayed as Putin’s icy depravity, which makes him useful but not particularly interesting.
Many of us can be put on edge these days at the mere televised visage of Putin; it’s not just his countenance, a waxen inscrutability that has you wondering what sinister notions are percolating in his mind. The multiplicity of news reports alleging Russian interference in our elections only adds to our reservoir of dread. So on the score of stoking the natural suspicions of an American audience, “Kleptocracy” efficiently activates our confirmation bias. And in Khodorkovsky’s ordeal, Lin does manage, with chilling authority, to give a sometimes rattling look into a latter-day Kafkaesque nightmare.
“Kleptocracy,” directed with a stolid graveness by Jackson Gay, won’t grab you if you’re not deeply curious about the metamorphoses of post-Soviet, post-perestroika Russia, and how a movement toward greater political and economic freedom might end up minting a class of robber barons. Lin portrays Khodorkovsky as an avatar of the opportunism with which a new generation of avaricious businessmen manipulated the nation’s industries and filled their pockets with astronomical profits. What makes this oligarch unusual, according to the playwright, is that he developed a conscience about it.
Much of the play evolves out of the irony of Putin’s rise from relative KGB and regional political obscurity, an ascendancy that “Kleptocracy” ascribes partly to Khodorkovsky’s own support. Although it deals tangentially with the industrialist’s second marriage, to Inna (Brontë England-Nelson), and his building of a financial empire, the play is mostly about the battle of wills between the iron-willed Putin and the slightly more malleable Khodorkovsky.
Geary’s Putin, with his slicked-back blond hair and wide-set eyes, oozes menace. It is not, safe to say, a positive portrait. Nor is it a particularly psychologically nuanced one. This Putin is an impenetrable fortress of malicious intent, and if Woertendyke’s Khodorkovsky is able to earn our sympathy, it may be largely because his adversary comes across as so monstrously bloodless. Still, our allegiance to Khodorkovsky remains at arm’s length. Both actors offer workmanlike exertions in roles that aren’t entirely liberated from the page.
Misha Kachman’s dreary, jagged set in Arena’s Kreeger Theater is lighted with ominous shadows by Masha Tsimring; aside from a couple of unfortunate wigs in the early going, the actors are outfitted impressively, by Jessica Ford. That goes especially for the elegant costuming of the terrific Candy Buckley, who provides the evening’s one outstanding performance, as an American identified in the program as a “White House official.” In a turn brimming with bluster and insouciance, Buckley delivers a convincing account of what Lin presents as American complicity in the bleak dashing of hopes for a Russia that will play fair and square. In a more stirring rendition of this sorry state of affairs, she’d have more help.
Kleptocracy, by Kenneth Lin. Directed by Jackson Gay. Original music, Broken Chord. About 2 hours 20 minutes. $56-$115. Through Feb. 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.