Anton Chekhov's most famous works are dense dramas about class, society, and love. Despite the plays' translation from Russian to English, a careful reader will have no problem understanding the text, but many actors would agree that acting Chekhov is harder than reciting stanzas of Shakespearean iambic pentameter. The characters' inner monologues are more important than the words they speak out loud; great care must be taken so that the actors don't come off as either one-note (by focusing on the outside) or inscrutable (by focusing on the inside). The 13th Street Repertory Company's presentation of TROIKA: God, Tolstoy & Sophia is about a different Russian writer, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Still, playwright Peter Levy seems to have been greatly influenced by the country estate dramas of Chekhov in his structuring of this biographical piece, which does much to illuminate the author's life even as it suffers under its inspiration's shadow.
In the play, the 82-year-old Tolstoy has moved away from his fiction writing to focus on religious ideas, in part to atone for the debaucheries of his youth. Concerned that the high price of books keeps the poor from reading him, he's decided to change his will so that the royalties for his more recent work will go to his daughter Sasha, who will then refuse to accept them. He must do this behind the back of his wife Sophia, who claims she will need all of his revenue to support herself and their children after Tolstoy's death.
The author, backed by his publisher, doctor, and daughter, is increasingly at odds with his wife over money, spirituality, and sex, and is getting weaker by the day because of it. Into the fray comes Valentin Bulgakov, a poor university student and Tolstoy's new secretary, who refuses to take sides. Yet his growing affection for Sasha demands it, so he gets caught up in the struggles over Tolstoy's wealth, well-being, and eternal soul.
Levy has done his best to trim down the action to spotlight the primary and secondary conflicts, but there seems to be too many scenes, especially at the beginning, some of them lasting for barely a minute. The dialogue is stilted, consisting of general conversational pleasantries or Tolstoy's academic quips. Most important, the play is missing a strong narrative and dramatic arc, a misstep that can be made only collaboratively.
The actors and director fail to invest the play with a sense of urgency or consequences. Sophia's appalling behavior seems to come purely out of spite, not a blend of spite, fear, love, and all of the other emotions that come when your life partner is drawing away from you emotionally and spiritually, and dying as well. Sasha doesn't convincingly put forth the libidinous overtones of her dialogue, or how she can be both her father's daughter and a woman with very modern ideas (and an altogether too contemporary way of speaking).
Mike Durell's Tolstoy wasn't a very charismatic guy, but he did come across as a very learned and opinionated old man and drew the audience's empathy for the shabby way his wife treated him. The most effective performance was that of Mark Comer, whose Bulgakov was simple, earnest, and likable.
The goal of 13th Street Rep is to provide a place for performers and crew to learn their craft through putting on full-scale productions. It's commendable that it's choosing new works that are about more than modern people and their problems, so as to challenge and teach the company's members. But sometimes the lesson is that ambitious projects don't always make for good theater.