By Anton Chekhov; Adapted and Directed by Aleksey Burago
Produced by The Russian Arts Theater and Studio
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.10.18
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
by Asya Danilova on 2.27.18
Roman Freud and Lana Stimmler in Lady With a Lapdog. Photo by Jared Biunno.
BOTTOM LINE: The Russian Arts Theater and Studio introduces the lesser-known side of Chekhov in an evening of short stories.
Anton Chekhov, famous mostly for his plays, was also an avid writer of short stories. With Lady With a Lapdog, With Jokes and a Happy Ending, The Russian Arts Theater and Studio gives New York audiences a wonderful chance to get acquainted with the funny and loving side of this chronicler of Russian temperaments. The piece, based on eleven stories and anecdotes by Chekhov, is adapted and directed by Aleksey Burago. Eight actors impersonate an ever-swirling carousel of colorful 19th century characters, making for an evening of amusing sketches.
The core story, "Lady With a Lapdog," is not a comedic one however. It starts as a summer fling between Gurov (Tom Schubert) and Anna (Di Zhu), both taking time off from their spouses at the Crimean resort town of Yalta. When back in Moscow, Gurov finds that he can’t stop thinking about his little affair despite his active social life. What was planned as another quick romance becomes an obsession, causing him to seek another meeting with Anna. The chemistry between the two lovers is magical—perhaps starring as the title characters in a summer production of Master and Margarita together helped.
As the season changes and the action moves from a sunny pier in Yalta to the snowy streets of Moscow, the interwoven comedic short stories also change settings. The suspenseful "Fish" has a sudden homoerotic charge as a group of half-naked men enthusiastically pull something unseen from under the dock. Another fishing scene, "Daughter of Albion," receives a questionable adaptation commenting on issues of immigration. The farce "Surgery" gets a little out of hand when a priest’s visit to the veterinarian/dentist practically turns into rape.
The winter stories, "Over-Spiced" and "A Little Joke," are delightful and touching, especially the latter. The naïve and romantic beauty of "A Little Joke" stands out against the crude humor of the village scenes and has a breath of “longing for something different,” meaningful and true. "A Chorus Girl" looks at marital infidelity from a comedic angle, cleverly providing a counterweight to "Lady With a Lapdog." The mirroring plot helps to differentiate between lust and true love, which is precisely the trajectory that Anna and Ganin’s relationship takes.
The secret lovers reunite at the theater, joined by the characters of two stories, "Death of a Government Clerk" and "Confessions," that are unfolding in parallel. It becomes evident in "Death of a Government Clerk" that the most pressing social issues are often at the heart of Chekhov’s jokes. In this little tale, a low rank government clerk (Michael Dona) sneezes on a general (Roman Freud) by accident and becomes so worried about assaulting an authority figure that begging for forgiveness becomes his solemn life goal. This tragedy of a “small man” has an almost Kafkaesque anxiety, but with a bitter fatalist sense of humor. Freud and Dona also play central characters in "Daughter of Albion" and "Surgery" and are certainly a memorable duo worthy of their own sketch show. But the exuberant, over-the-top style of their performances gets a little redundant over time.
The “bacchanalian carnival” of village life comes off as somewhat startling, especially considering the homophobic and nationalistic tension in modern day Russia. Chekhov’s short stories, which seemed funny and naïve when I read them as a child, appear in a new light after Burago's risky staging, with the help of the beautifully nuanced performances of the entire cast. Under the veil of sheer entertainment lies a heavy question: What are we laughing at as a nation?
As Chekhov put it, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “Brevity is the sister of talent.” Lady With a Lapdog, With Jokes and a Happy Ending might certainly benefit from the advice of its source—even at only 90 minutes, some trimming around the edges would only make the point clearer. But even in the current production, Chekhov’s wit is handled with care and great skill. This is something not to be missed!
(Lady With a Lapdog, With Jokes and a Happy Ending plays at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, through March 10, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $35 and are available at russiantheater.org.)
Lady With a Lapdog, With Jokes and a Happy Ending is based stories by Anton Chekhov. Adapted and Directed by Aleksey Burago. Set Design by Olia Rogova. Lighting Design by Conor Mulligan. Costume Design by Di Zhu and Aleksey Burago.
The cast is Michael Dona, Roman Freud, Conor Andrew Hall, Ariel Polanco, Luisa Menzen, Tom Schubert, Lana Stimmler, and Di Zhu.