The sound of the balalaika and a chorus of “Green Eyes” certainly add to the pleasure of seeing eight early short stories and plays by Russia’s greatest playwright, Anton Chekhov. As artfully adapted by Michael Frayn, and as delightfully presented by the Pearl Theater Company, they represent part of an entire canon of brilliantly written trifles from the mind of a brilliant writer who was then in his 20s. That there was no vodka served at intermission is my only complaint in regards to an evening in which many splendid performances under the spot-on direction of J.R. Sullivan bring a pronounced sparkle to each comical gem.
One is hard pressed to think of a better adaptor than Frayn, one of the foremost and lauded translators of Chekhov’s major plays. Mixing and matching both short stories and short plays, Frayn could not be praised more for the way he has captured in English the essential absurdities, poignancies, and delicacies at the heart of humor that is so essentially and specifically Russian in nature. I can’t imagine why this collection has taken so long to cross the ocean after it was first presented in London in 1983 and in a revised version in 1988. The task finally has been accomplished with cleverness, grace, and style by the Pearl Theater Company.
Set designer Jo Winiarski has evoked a small theater in a Russian province. A false proscenium of red and green curlicues frame the sketches that are amusingly presented as a vaudeville show, each play seamlessly beginning where the previous one has just ended and as the actors assume with alacrity their various identities with the help of Barbara A. Bell’s colorful costumes.
In “Drama,” “a lady with literary ambitions” (Rachel Botchan) gains access to the home of a well-known writer (Chris Mixon) who, try as he may, cannot deter her from reading her lengthy, cliche-filled text in its entirety. What torment for the writer who finally figures out how to end the aggressive lady’s assault. In “Alien Corn,” it is the question of how much belittling and how many insults can a meek and mild French tutor (Dominic Cuskern) take at the hands of boorish Russian landowner (Bradford Cover) as they dine together in a country cafe.
Cover, who only last year splendidly played Horace in (a very traditional) “The Little Foxes” at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey and has been a resident Pearl Theater Company member since 1994, returns immediately as the very model of a pompous and stiff government official. The chameleon-like Mixon is back as an annoyingly reactionary minor government official in “The Sneeze.” The ridiculous lengths to which the minor official, egged on by his wife (Lee Stark), goes to get the goat of the major official and his snooty wife (Botchan) while seated behind them at the opera provides the fuel for a tragic-comic ending.
Act I ends with my favorite, “The Bear,” in which a grieving widow (Stark) and an enraged landowner (Cover) become engaged in a ferocious but romantically stimulating battle of the sexes. By this point we are mostly in awe of the entire ensemble. If one actor stands out, however, it is a marvelously manic Mixon who is making his Pearl Theater Company debut. He manages to stay just this side of a complete nervous breakdown as he careens through the classic Chekhov monologue, “The Evils of Tobacco.”
The balance of the evening includes “The Inspector-General” (not to be confused with Gogol’s inspector); “Swan Song,” a heart-breaking vignette in which Hock poignantly portrays an aging actor at the end of a long career; and “The Proposal,” in which a young and very obstinate and argumentative woman (Botchan) and her suitor (the inimitable Mixon), who is all ticks and twitches, almost kill each other before a match is made. I am pleased to say that the vibrancy of the young Chekhov is perfectly matched with the vitality of the Pearl Theater Company. ***
“The Sneeze,” through Sunday, October 31, the Pearl Theatre Company, at New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street $45 and $55. 212-581-1212.
Acclaim greeted Emma Rice, the Kneehigh Theater’s artistic director, for her stage adaptation of David Lean’s 1945 film classic “Brief Encounter” when it transferred last year from London’s West End to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse for a limited run. The public and critical response to her imaginative music-filled and dance-enhanced staging is such that it has been transferred to Broadway.
Although this stage version is, as was the screenplay, based on playwright Noel Coward’s 1935 short (half-hour) one-act little performed stage play “Still Life,” it is very much its own creation. What it most assuredly is not is a parody. Call it a valentine, or possibly a bracing, emotionally intensified riff on a theme as it might be called in jazz lingo. But one could also argue that it is, in reality, simply a musical version of an endearing romantic drama as it contains nine songs by Coward (many with lyrics and arrangements by Stu Barker) and a generous amount of choreography supplied by Rice. It is — with its generous use of film, projections, and live performance — generally conceded to be a hybrid entertainment that defies easy classification.
Rice, in collaboration with her designer Neil Murray, may be retelling the same story: the bittersweet, ill-fated romance between Laura (Hannah Yelland), a married woman, and Alec (Tristan Sturrock), a married doctor, but she has stylistically distanced this production from both the original play and the film. For some of us, the film of “Brief Encounter” was always almost a musical, given the rapturous use of music by Rachmaninoff that underscores many scenes, and his Piano Concerto #2, which is heard during the credits. You can be assured that Rice has not disallowed Rachmaninoff’s motifs to be incorporated with the delicacies from the Coward canon.
Don’t assume that Rice’s vision for the stage version remains fixed on the affair between Laura and Alec. Given plenty of consideration are the comical/romantic shenanigans of the station master (Joseph Alessi) and the lusty proprietress (Annette McLaughlin) of the cafe and the precocious platform vendor (Gabriel Ebert) in pursuit of a young waitress (Dorothy Atkinson.) Multiple role-playing is part of the show’s conceit and adds to the fun. Five versatile musicians also have been ingeniously integrated into the action. They also provide a delightful musical surprise at the end of the show. So stick round. ***
“Brief Encounter,” through Sunday, December 5, Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. $37 to $127. 212-719-1300.