Dysfunctional Family Feud

Except for the front two or three rows, the black box seats for Ivanov at The Gene Frankel Theatre are roped off. Audience members sit in chairs along the stage walls, as if they were guests in the parlor of the Lebedev family, where much of this classic Anton Chekhov play takes place. Here’s a brief synopsis of the plot, for those unfamiliar with it. Thirty-two-year-old Nicholas Ivanov owns a large estate, a farm, which has yet to turn a profit. He’s in debt to the Lebedevs, a genteel family who put on airs about their wealth. Five years earlier Ivanov had married a young woman, Anna (Emily Robin Fink), a Jew, who converted to Christianity because of her love for him. Abandoned by her parents, and now dying of tuberculosis, Anna is a double victim: Nicholas has lapsed into an unfathomable and mysterious depression, and has lost his love for Anna and even for life itself. Sasha, the Leberdevs’ 20-year old daughter, is secretly in love with Ivanov, who seems indifferent to her overtures.

Anna looks great—for a consumptive, that is—Anya Klepikov does a fine job with her costuming and makeup. And most of the actors are quite skilled and enthusiastic; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more of them. Standouts are Brad Lee Thomason as the endearing rascal, Borkin; Tim Martin, who perfectly straddles the line between humor and drama as the preoccupied card player Koshyk; the sassy Avdotia (Emily Jon Mitchell); and the jolly Jonathan David Marballi as George, another guest of the Lebedevs’, who keeps the snarky festivities going. When the entire party teases Sasha for her inexplicable defense of Ivanov, her frustration and embarrassment are palpable.

Yet, main cast members are not uniformly suited for their roles. William Bogert as Shabelski, a down-at-the-heels Count, comes across as alternatively mean-spirited and pathetic, and never quite finds his character’s balance. Matthew Scanlon was, at first, self-conscious in the role of the young doctor, Lvov, but his confidence grew noticeably as the play progressed. The biggest problem, though, is Jeff Barry’s portrayal of Ivanov, the melancholic protagonist of this play. Barry’s Ivanov is less morbid than the rest of the cast—he’s angry, workman-like and in control; ultimately, though, he’s simply neutral. He’s competent when he should be hopeless.

Another problem with this adaptation by Barry and Knoll is that they take unnecessary-—sometimes simply ribald but occasionally even disingenuous-—liberties with the text, almost as if they are deliberately reading too much into the 27-year old’s first play, or worse, attempting to change it. In my translation, Shabelski denounces lawyers and doctors “frauds” and “swindlers” (not the “c” word). Barry and Knoll are going for laughs but what we get is bathos.

Another gratuitous bit is where Chekvov’s “fragile” Martha Babakina (Stephanie Bratnick), plants an extended full on kiss on Sasha’s lips for no reason other than to spice up the script. Nonetheless, Ms. Bratnick is the best actress in the bunch, with great range and emotion. And, at the end of Act II, Chevhov’s Sasha and Ivanov simply kiss. They don’t writhe around on the floor, nearly pre-coitus, as the adaptors have them do. These are not harmless tweaks to the text.

A final problem is Knoll’s direction. It’s as if he has instructed the actors to speak their lines hysterically and turn their loudness knobs to "11." So, everyone screams at each other, all the time. This is not particularly pleasant if you’re an audience member cursed with a seat twelve inches from said screaming. Overall, I cannot recommend this play to either those familiar with Chekhov’s work or those looking to become familiar with it.

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