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Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories
I have now understood that though it seems to men that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live. He who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love. — Michael
Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories
Anna Lentz & Alexander Sokovikov in a scene from Chekhov’s The Artist -photo by Maria Baranova
The renowned pre-revolutionary Russian authors Anton Chekhov and Count Leo Tolstoy were not exactly pals although they were long-time fans of each others' writings. They did finally meet one day when Tolstoy was a young 78 and Chekhov and even younger 46. This meeting did not preclude the avidly religious Tolstoy's fervent criticism of Chekhov's more pragmatic humanism. This contentious respect for each other's talent as well as for their aesthetic diversity apparently inspired the 20th century character actor and playwright Miles Malleson to dramatize two of their short stories - Tolstoy's What Men Live By ( Michael ) in 1917 and Chekhov's An Artist?s Story ( The Artist ) in 1919 .

It must have seemed like a good idea for the Mint Theatre to pair - The Artist and Michael - where Malleson has already had successes with two of his own plays Conflict and Yours . It turns out to be not such a good idea. There are lots of reasons why the literary form and the dramatic form don't make for a marriage made in heaven and Malleson's efforts in both cases are unfortunate validations. They survive best as curiosities from a zealous adapter.

The Mint, whose reputation for resurrecting and giving new life to neglected plays of yore, has staged two that can be generously described as ponderous and boring. These two plays provide ample evidence why the lofty spiritual and philosophical themes as expressed in them are not dramatically viable. The Chekhov is filled to the brim with social grandstanding while the Tolstoy is no more than a mawkishly performed spiritual allegory.

The Artist as directed by Jonathan Banks, is mainly hampered by long empty pauses and a lack of energy from a cast that simply cannot find a way to inject their words with life. In it, a world-weary artist is painting a landscape on the grounds of an estate wherein live two daughters and their mother. Inclined out of courtesy to converse with him, the older daughter makes clear she is a realist and social activist while her younger sister appears to have no interest to occupying her thoughts beyond her loneliness. The artist has plenty to say about the value of art being the only savior of society while the older girl refutes his mostly abstract point of view. The mother takes things into her own hands when a romance is apparently kindled despite no chemistry between the artist and the youngest daughter. Curtain.

Michael ,as directed by Jane Shaw, is so stilted in performance that its message is lost before it has barely has begun. It is the kindness shown to a stranger by a poor cobbler and his wife that propels its allegorical story. Magical, mystical and inexplicable things happen to them as their good deeds are rewarded in the end by an arch angel sent to earth for redemption. If I refrain from naming the performers, or the designer who attired them, it is out of my own need for redemption.

At the performance I attended, the actors sounded as if they were off book for the first time...despite this being the last preview before opening night. There is bound to be some curiosity from the audience given the original authors repute and how each play does consider what makes life worth living. What this production doesn't consider is the precious amount of time in one's life that has been given up for its consideration.

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Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories
The Artist Directed by Jonathan Banks
Michael Directed by Jane Shaw
The Artist Cast: Alexander Sokovikov (Nicov), Anna Lentz (Genya), Brittany Anikka Liu (Lidia), J. Paul Nicholas (Bylekurov), Katie Firth (Mother)
Michael Cast: Katie Firth (Matryona), Vinie Burrows (Aniuska), J. Paul Nicholas (Simon), Malik Reed (Michael), Alexander Sokovikov (A Russian Noble), Anna Lentz (His Servant), Brittany Anikka Liu (A Woman)

Sets: Roger Hanna
Costumes: Oana Botez
Lights: Mathew Richards
Original Music & Sound: Jane Shaw
Stage Manager: Andrea Jess Berkey
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Mint Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street
From 01/23/20 Opened 02/10/20 Ends 03/14/20
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 02/09/20

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