The applause was tepid, and the cast, sensing a lack of enthusiasm, put on brave faces above awkward bows, and scooted to the wings.
As the lights came up, struggling into my coat, I turned to the couple seated behind me and asked the woman what she thought. She oﬀered the classic New Yorker’s downcast eyes paired with a shrug of her shoulders. Then, with a disdainful nod to her date, she responded, “Well, he liked it.”
This Mint Theater Company production of Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories, currently running at Theatre Row, is ambitious. Miles Malleson adapts Chekhov’s An Artist’s Story and Tolstoy’s What Men Live By from the short story format to the theatrical, in back-to-back one-acts.
It might have worked. In his notes, Malleson points to the authors shared dedication to social causes. An Artist’s Story reﬂects Chekhov’s struggle with the value of art while peasants starve. What Men Live By showcases Tolstoy’s Christian paciﬁsm juxtaposing the honorable peasants with a corporeal angel. The honorable peasants — (Katie Firth and J. Paul Nicholas) — were ﬁne. The angel (Malik Reed), however, around whom the piece revolves, is presumably reaching for spirituality, but comes oﬀ as mad or perhaps just creepy.
Changing a short story into a stage play should give one pause. It can be done, to be sure. It has been done. Consider the remarkable heights John Luther Long’s modest 1898 story Madame Butterﬂy scaled. So, while it can be done, Malleson’s eﬀorts to translate Chekhov and Tolstoy from page to stage, argues for leaving well enough alone. This production seeks to animate what apparently seeks to be static.
The modest, shallow stage oﬀers little relief. The costumes were fun — faux fur works with stage lighting. The casting is oﬀ. Anna Lentz, playing the young daughter of an aristocratic Russian household, would beneﬁt from a dialect coach when playing either an aristocrat or a Russian. None of the three women in the Chekhov piece found a plausible sound.
There were highs and lows but not so much dramatic pacing as ﬁts-and-starts.
The signiﬁcant monologue in the Chekhov piece, delivered well enough by Alexander Sokovikov (who, incidentally seemed to be carrying this entire piece on his back), was interminable. On the other hand, the Aniuska character (Vinie Burrows) in the Tolstoy piece, was lightning in a bottle. In What Men Live By, Sokovikov playing a Russian noble breaks into Russian for no obvious reason, except perhaps, that the actor is Russian so can do it credibly.
All in all, the production feels like it’s being workshopped; not yet ready for an audience. There’s a lot to see in New York and a lot to see on Theatre Row. This one is not a winner.
(Photo by Maria Baranova)