Chekhov in Bits and Pieces

It’s easy to see why the Pearl Theatre Company programmed The Sneeze, an umbrella title covering eight one-acts derived from the works of Anton Chekhov. The evening offers a variety of comic and dramatic roles for several of the company’s stalwarts. Everyone has a chance to shine, and yet the whole is less than fulfilling. The shifting tones make for an unsettling experience, and at times in J.R. Sullivan’s production, the comedy plays like a blunt force object. Four plays are one-acts that Chekhov wrote for the theater, and two of those are monologues. The other four are adaptations of short stories, at which the Russian author was prolific. (Jo Winiarski’s carnival-like proscenium of a decrepit old playhouse with plank floors that turn up like skis at the footlights emphasizes the theatrical aspect and camouflages the more prosaic sources of the other pieces). Characters range across classes: peasants and landowners, rich and poor, military hierarchies and civilian masters and servants, actors and professors.

The title piece, one of the four adaptations, is one of the funniest and most successful. Introduced briefly by “storytellers,” the piece has no dialogue. A military officer named Chervyakov (Chris Mixon) and his wife (Lee Stark) are sitting behind a Gen. Brizzhalov (Bradford Cover) and his wife (Rachel Botchan). Chervyakov sneezes, and as he does so he deposits something disgusting on the top of Brizzhalov’s head. As Chervyakov tries to clean up Brizzhalov unobtrusively and not appear a fool or boor, he invokes much comedy involving dirty handkerchiefs and fans. Acted superbly, it’s like a silent movie, and in many respects the broad style of silent film comedy carries over to the dialogue-driven pieces.

For instance, in The Proposal, which closes the evening, a hypochondriacal Lomov (Mixon again) arrives at a neighboring landowner’s home to seek marriage with Natalya Stepanova, the daughter. Left alone with her, he is about to ask for her hand when the conversation turns to a piece of property. He claims it’s his; she claims irately that her family owns it. The discussion degenerates into shouting, and Lomov begins to have palpitations and trembling. The whole is played with abundant slapstick, and although Mixon’s Lomov is often amusing—particularly as he leaps across stage with an apparently numb leg—the shouting becomes tiresome and one wishes for more subtlety.

It may be, of course, that the Russian sense of comedy doesn’t travel westward very well, or that Chekhov’s sense of what’s funny is shaky. Michael Frayn’s introduction to the plays suggests that possibility, since the playwright reworked his monologue, The Evils of Tobacco, over many years, leaching out the comedy until it was a portrait of a miserably henpecked man. Frayn’s adaptation returns to earlier versions and attempts to restore the humor to the long monologue—delivered with painful panache by the redoubtable Mixon.

A similar problem afflicts Swan Song, also one of the original plays. In it, an aged actor (the marvelous Robert Hock) comes into a dark stage after having napped through a theater party. His appearance echoes that of the servant Firs at the end of The Cherry Orchard. An old prompter appears, and the actor begins to lament the way the theater stood between him and happiness. It’s a lugubrious and dark piece, and although both actors are excellent, it feels too long (especially after Chekhov introduces scenes from Shakespeare (Othello and Lear).

Certainly there are more pleasures to be found in the compact adaptation The Inspector General, in which Bradford Cover in the title role lies on a cart taking him to a village for a surprise inspection. The coachman, unaware of the identity of his passenger, begins telling tales about the IG—he’s a drunkard and has had lots of women. Cover’s reactions to the slander are brilliant, and the piece benefits from being snappy and shorter.

But several of the works are more labored, such as the opener, Drama, based on a story that Chekhov told. Mixon again plays a playwright (Chekhov himself, though named otherwise in the script) and Botchan is an admirer who gains entrance to his home and insists on reading her play to him. Mixon’s increasing agonies and thoughts (of stabbing her, for instance) constitute the humor, but the dividends of his comic exasperation decrease sharply as the play goes on and on.

For anyone who is a fan of Chekhov, the evening provides an overview of the author’s work, widely varying in tone and consistency. Some may find that a virtue, and some may find it uncomfortable, but the Pearl at least deserves credit for undertaking the lesser-known efforts of a playwright whom one is likely to find more satisfying in full-length works.

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