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It’s not that Tolstoy plods, exactly. But surely nobody would argue that his prose sparkles. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Helen Edmundson’s theatrical adaptation of Anna Karenina takes drastic liberties with the mammoth text. It is a regrettable thing, though, that Washington Stage Guild’s production isn’t quite coherent enough to make the rewrite fly.

Edmundson’s chief conceit is a radical one: She brings Anna, the Russian aristocrat who dooms herself by trading a stifling but socially acceptable marriage for her own equally inflexible and unrealistic expectations, and Constantine Levin, the upright echo of the author, together in a kind of timeless limbo. (Bill Largess’ minimalist set looks something like a stellar intersection, with wisps of cloudlike fabric suspended at the four corners and a deep blue starfield strewn beneath the actors’ feet.)

In this place between the lines, the novel’s chief protagonists, who barely meet in the original despite the intricate web of connections and relationships between them, get to know each other while highlights of their stories play out around them: Levin is rejected by the woman he wants to marry; Anna meets Vronsky, who was the beloved of Levin’s beloved, and knows that her marriage is not the noble bargain she thought; the object of Levin’s desire sickens, recovers, and learns his value; Anna throws off propriety’s shackles for an equally confining romantic ideal.

It’s a fine idea to bring these two together to talk, to analyze, to counsel and pity each other—for all their contrasts they are parallel creatures, both rebels against prevailing norms, reformers with distinct and individual moral visions—but it’s also an extraordinarily self-conscious one. “What are you doing here?” Anna asks Levin at the outset. “This is my story!” “It seems it is mine, too,” Levin replies, and you realize right off that it’s going to take a deft directorial hand to keep this from occasionally tipping over into coyness.

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But John MacDonald lets his actors opt for ripe histrionics when restraint and stylization would better serve the script’s strained concept; there’s a good deal of shouting and running offstage when quietly desperate line readings would have infinitely more impact. And—how to put this delicately?—none of his cast quite has the gravity to make this edited-down epic play like anything more than a big, messy melodrama.

Part of the fault lies in the adaptation, of course: Cut away all of Tolstoy’s leisurely detail, and you’re left with no real sense of the novel’s extraordinarily complex arguments about constructs of morality—their nature and sources—and none of its minutely observed situations or precisely drawn characterizations.

(But then, how could these things remain? What actor, what director could measure up to the entire paragraph Tolstoy spends describing Levin’s blush at the thought of the woman he loves: “Levin suddenly blushed, not as grown men blush, slightly, without being themselves aware of it, but as boys blush, feeling that they are ridiculous through their shyness, and consequently ashamed of it, and blushing still more, almost to the point of tears. And it was so strange to see this sensible, manly face in such a childish plight, that Oblonsky left off looking at him.”)

There are problems in MacDonald’s distinctly made-for-television direction, too. I can see wanting to lighten the tension in a two-hour-and-45-minute Tolstoy adaptation, but do we really need to see Levin dodge an ignorant peasant’s shovel handle in a bit cribbed directly from the Three Stooges?

Supporting characterizations are troublesome: Joseph Cronin’s smarmy, buffoonish Stiva doesn’t begin to hint at the essential decency of Tolstoy’s character, and Laura Giannarelli’s robust Dolly seems entirely too sensible to bother staying with such a lout, children or no. Steven Carpenter’s Vronsky is a pallid Romeo, with little of the charisma you’d think it would take to win as strong-willed a creature as Anna.

To be fair, not everything is in confusion in this house: Tricia McCauley’s wide-eyed Anna takes on a desperate vulnerability as she descends into morphine addiction and veers erratically toward her tragic end, and Lawrence Redmond finds grace in Levin’s quieter scenes—his brother’s death, his own second, wordlessly poetic marriage proposal.

But between concept and execution, something has gone missing from Anna Karenina. Set on Earth, it had the profound weight of legend; stripped down and set amid the stars, it seems no more consequential than a soap opera.CP