Duel Identity

Those looking to be among the first to discover a new, fresh theatrical voice should be sure to head to Chelsea’s Sanford Meisner Theater, where Cherubina, a remarkable amalgam of well-researched historical fact and perfectly crafted narrative, currently heralds the arrival of Paul Cohen. Cherubina, which calls to mind Warren Beatty’s Reds with just a soupcon of Edmund Rostand thrown in, toes the line between humor and sentiment so well, it practically pirouettes over it. Cherubina derives its title from the alter ego of Elisa (Amanda Fulks), a schoolteacher and aspiring poet living in St. Petersburg in 1913, just before the dawn of the Russian Revolution. Down on her luck in the areas of both love and career, Elisa is no stranger to rejection. After Nikolai (Teddy Bergman) denies her submission to his literary magazine, Apollon, Elisa adopts a new persona with the help of her university chum Max (Jimmy Owens): the spirited Cherubina de Gabriak.

Elaborate plotting and the use of a photograph of a former student of Elisa’s leads Nikolai to become obsessed with this enigmatic writer, not only publishing her but creating a celebrity in the process. Nikolai writes letters to Cherubina, and Elisa replies in order to keep up this façade. But the question of how much the content of her letters come from the heart tears more and more at Max, who carries a long-burning torch for Elisa. Max has not only longed for Elisa, he respects her. He pleads with her to come clean, but having tasted success and, more importantly, adoration, she cannot.

Those who think this triangle sounds a tad too rote will be pleased to hear that it is not. Cohen has created one of the rare equilateral love triangles, where all three sides are equally flawed and sympathetic, making this a far more relatable tale than adult audiences often see. Nikolai is the character who initially holds all the power, and yet as Cherubina unfolds, Bergman plays him as both self-absorbed and well-intentioned, a man-child who thinks he has finally connected with someone. He is matched scene for scene by Owens, who creates in Max a lower-class, slightly disabled editor, whose intellect and dignity protect him from ever being seen as an unappealing nebbish.

Perhaps most impressive is Fulks, who subtly imbues her character (some might say, dual characters) with traces of insecurity, virtuousness, self-satisfaction and impetuousness in less than 90 minutes. She underscores a gradual transformation for Elisa both as talented artist and confident woman, and we are able to see how the drastically different Max and Nikolai might both be drawn to her. As a result, one feels equally for all three characters, none of whom ask for too much.

This love story is actually the conduit for Cohen to relay a fascinating, if forgotten, chapter in world history, as the events depicted in Cherubina are historical fact. Max and Nikolai ultimately engaged in a famed duel, which provides the framework for the events of Cohen's play. However, the plot is so accessible it never feels like a lecture, which is also a credit to director Alexis Poledouris, who has paced the play perfectly, never allowing any scene to linger too long but also making sure key moments get their due. That is one of the most impressive aspects about the play; not only is the story enticing, but there is not a wasted moment in it. All of the scenes are dramatically necessary and rich. Cohen’s writing is not only fluid, it is often quite funny.

Cherubina is that rare show that has it all: top-notch writing, outstanding performances, careful direction, and quality production values. The only news greater than to hear that the Meisner was extending the show’s run would be for Cohen to announce that he has another new play ready to premiere.

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