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Theatre in Review: Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories (Mint Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Caption: Katie Firth, Vinie Burrows (seated), J. Paul Nicholas, Malik Reed. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Through the good offices of the Mint, we know about playwright Miles Malleson's grasp of post-World War I disillusionment among the British upper and middle classes. Such works as Conflict and Yours Unfaithfully, both produced by the Mint in recent seasons, belong on the shelf next to Coward, Maugham, and Galsworthy, yet Malleson has a voice all his own when describing the social and romantic upheavals of the 1920s and '30s. Given his appreciation of well-off, yet often futile, lives, it is perhaps not surprising that he once adapted a Chekhov short story for the stage; what's less expected -- and less accomplished -- is his attempt at dramatizing Tolstoy, an author deeply fond of handing out moral lessons. The best to be said for this uneven pair of one-acts is that they expand our knowledge of a distinctive playwright (better known as a character actor) whose output might be altogether forgotten if not for this intrepid theatre company.

The Artist -- based on Chekhov's "An Artist's Story" and a subtly wrought drama that ends with a sting -- is founded on an unusually configured triangle. Nicov, an artist, is discovered painting in the garden of the country house of an affluent matron and her daughters. One of them, Genya, is drawn to him, and he to her. But Nicov is also something of a tortured soul, only just emerging from an extremely fallow period and openly wondering why he continues to work; he is also poor and, given the marital rules of the era, has nothing to offer a young woman. Furthermore, if Genya finds Nicov fascinating, her sister, Lidia, has no use for him at all. Lidia is the local Lady Bountiful, racing from one charitable endeavor to the next, barely taking a second to catch her breath; at the moment, she is dealing with the aftermath of a fire that has left homeless many of the area's most vulnerable souls and she doesn't at all see the point of artistic endeavors.

Indeed, for all that Nicov and Genya flirt, the real passion seems to be between him and Lidia, although it is of a peculiarly icy sort. Malleson establishes their social impasse in a polite exchange that simmers with barely suppressed emotions:

Nicov (to Genya): I'm afraid your sister thinks it's a terrible waste of time, painting landscapes.

Lidia (dismissively): It's very pretty.

Nicov: I think you'd like it better if there were a peasant or two in it -- without showing the disgraceful conditions under which they live.

Lidia: One might do a great deal of good like that -- if only the rich people of Moscow and the towns could see for themselves how the poor live, things might be better.

You can practically feel the chill between them. Later on, sitting around with the sisters and others, Nicov bares his bleak philosophy, which, by implication, accuses Lidia, for all her good works, of applying the thinnest of bandages to a world suffering from a profound spiritual sickness. It's a long speech, but, as vigorously delivered by Alexander Sokovikov, it has an unsettling force; even if you disagree with him -- and you probably will -- you're likely to be carried along by his anguished, deeply felt words. Jonathan Bank's canny direction comes into focus here, as Nicov's auditors listen politely, their composed faces nevertheless speaking volumes. Whether Nicov knows it or not, he is setting the stage for a terrible personal disappointment.

The piece doesn't totally come off, however, because Nicov's affection for Genya is so wanly rendered. The script portrays her as a standard period ingenue -- although one gifted with a certain perception -- and it doesn't help that the rather mannered Anna Lentz has been so unflatteringly costumed by Oana Botez. When Nicov and Genya finally open up, there is no spark, and if one doesn't believe that they belong together, the twist ending loses some of its bite. In any case, Brittany Anikka Liu is suitably steely as Lidia, as is Katie Firth as the mother whose sunny smile hints at a range of unspoken feelings.

Michael, taken from Tolstoy's "What Men Live By," is a thornier prospect, being a religious parable with fantastical elements that are difficult to realize onstage. The title character is a naked, mostly silent homeless man who is taken in by Simon, a rural bootmaker. At first, Matryona, Simon's mother, is furious at the thought of another mouth to feed, but Michael proves to be an excellent assistant, helping to build the family business. He also proves to be weirdly prescient: A wealthy count delivers some expensive leather, demanding it be made into boots and threatening the household with prison if the material is spoiled. Michael immediately renders it unusable, causing widespread alarm; then comes the news that the count has died, entirely unexpectedly. Did Michael see the future?

What happens next turns the play into a Sunday sermon offering strong hints that Tolstoy was bucking to take his place beside Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Malik Reed, as Michael, at last gets to display his oratorical skills, which are considerable -- the speech ties together everything that happens in the play, including the death of the count and an episode with another customer -- but the job of delivering - baldly and at some length-- a play's moral is not often a rewarding one. The script would seem to require some kind of special effects -- perhaps involving lighting and sound -- which aren't on offer here. This is surprising, since the director is Jane Shaw, the company's sound designer. If she does get solid work from a cast that includes J. Paul Nicholas as Simon, Firth as Matryona, and Vinie Burrows as an aging, childlike babushka, she hasn't found a style that might put over this rather strenuously uplifting tale.

Still, Roger Hanna has come up with an inventive set design involving an upstage drop depicting a tree aflame with autumn colors for The Artist and which scrolls to reveal an image of deeply planted roots for Michael. Matthew Richards' lighting executes a nice sunset-into-evening transition in The Artist, and Shaw's sound design -- which includes birdsong, carriage bells, and barking dogs -- is solid. It goes without saying that Malleson's original writing is far more interesting, but this pair may intrigue fans and scholars of Chekhov and Tolstoy. But I prefer the Malleson of modern marital discontent and Labour vs. Conservative politics. --David Barbour

(11 February 2020)

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