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Review: Stein's 'The Demons' a 'needlessly long day'

We arrived early for the 10 a.m. ferry to Governors Island, feeling crisp, fresh and full of hope. We landed back in Lower Manhattan around 11:30 that night - sweaty, used up and more than a little smug.

In the nearly 14 intervening hours (including half-hour hikes to the warehouse-theater and back, two picnic meals plus four short breaks), Peter Stein's sprawling, surprisingly straightforward story-theater adaptation of "The Demons" was intensely performed, but not always enthralling. Despite a powerful finish, the day was less a revelation than a feisty combination of Camp Dostoyevsky spirit and extreme theatergoing competition.

The event offered seekers of visionary international (and binge-mentality) theater a chance to better know Stein, arguably postwar Germany's leading director, whose staging of "Boris Godunov" opens at the Met in October. Stein is now living in Italy with actress wife Maddalena Crippa, who is formidable as the uncompromising matriarch in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's startlingly acute 1872 perceptions of ideological forces in what we now know as pre-revolutionary Russia.

There is a woozy pleasure in the juxtaposition of Russian melancholy and lilting Italian dialogue (with oddly synchronized English supertitles). And the 26 actors - everyone, but particularly the women - are experts in finding the prismatic emotional impact, the passions and the foolishness, behind extended debates about radical socialism, nihilism, religion and the "new man" in a provincial town where structures are collapsing and everyone has a theory about the solution.

Stein is clearly more interested in narrative than in the creation of indelible visual images. Aside from the period costumes, the production is almost bare-bones plain. The dozens of scenes are suggested with a few tables, an old sofa, chairs and the outline of a few squat rooms. An offstage piano provides 19th century romantic ambience.

The first hours are heavy with Dostoyevsky's exposition, introducing the many characters in the form of an absurdist romantic comedy. The noose tightens, finally, when stunning violence and zealotry triumph over humanism. But ultimately, despite Stein's complex attention to psychological detail, his characters are not fascinating, much less likable, enough to sustain through what, too often, feels like a needlessly long day.

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