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A CurtainUp Review
Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Play

Chekhov is boring. I would rather get drunk and have a prostitute. Than at least there will be a climax.—Officer
Conversations on Russian Literature
Frank Anderson and Jonna McElrath in Conversations on Russian Literature
(Photo: Kyle Ancowitz)
Aside from a common author who exhibits a definite knack for good dialogue there doesn't seem much at first that unites Blue Coyote Theater Group's evening of one-acts. But after a moment's thought, it should become clear that all of David Johnston's works are connected by a profound sense and easy enjoyment of the absurd.

Play Russia, directed by Kyle Ancowitz and featuring Matthew Trumbull as Constantin, Laura Desmond as Elena and Carter Jackson as the Bolshevik Horde, is a takeoff on Chekhov's frustrated, angst-laden characters and the playwright's gentle yet mocking handling of them. There's plenty of unrequited love, menacing pistols and plays on unpronounceable Russian names (Elena's would-be lover is named Constantin Gavrilovich Persistentitch). Despite the prevalence of low blows, however, for the most part Johnston's humor rings true. Anyone can appreciate Play Russia, although a familiarity with the great Russian playwright can make this short one-act unbearably funny.

For Those of Us Who Have Lived in France, also directed by Ancowitz, has nothing to do with living in France. On the contrary, it's all about wanting to go to France. The three who pine for the contrary of their dreams sit on chairs facing the audience and plead their case. Mary, Queen of Scotts (Jane Titus) begs her uncle, the Bishop of Lorraine, to protest her imprisonment in Potheringhay Prison by her cousin, Elizabeth. Henry Kissinger (the exceptional David Lapkin) writes to Judge Eugene DeFange of the International War Crimes Tribunal to defend his good name against the recent indictment of a French court as a "war criminal." Lunelle Snead (Amanda Ronconi) sends the editors of Ladies' Home Journal Non-Fiction Essay Writing Contest an essay entitled "Why I Want to See Paris Before I Die."

All three are self-absorbed, self-justifying and ridiculous. "I'll marry that Spanish prince. The one with the hump who is always falling down the stairs. Anything. Just get me out of here!" Mary declares. Kissinger maintains, "To say that I aided in the murder of ten percent of the population of East Timor by the Indonesian leader Suharto is a gross exaggeration." Lunelle explains, "I want to meet a longhaired film student named Jean Claude. And smoke a cigarette. And then he'll turn out to be a safecracker on the lam."

The absurdity and the very real pain of longing may never have been expressed as well.

Stephen Speights directs Mothra Is Waiting, also all about longing. In this case Dot (Katherine Puma) and Betty (Tracey Gilbert) are two aging singers whose sister act has become a joke for drag queens. Dot plans on getting out of the act by marrying Stu (David Lapkin), the club owner. Betty, sure that she and her sister are princesses of Infant Island, is firmly convinced Mothra, a giant mutated moth, is coming at any moment to fly them back to the island where they will "rule as beloved princesses." Dot and Betty are the embodiment of non-communication. One can easily sympathize with the practical Dot and sigh over the demented Dot — until the surprise ending.

Conversations on Russian Literature, directed by Gary Shrader, is the longest and most ambitious of the one-acts. The conversation between American agent Helena (Jonna McElrath) and the Russian ex-Communist military Officer (Frank Anderson) starts out with an analysis of a few well-known Russian writers. But it soon veers off into a discussion of Communism and its fall, international politics and the arms race. Eventually the conversation becomes personal. Helena reveals her failed marriage. The Officer describes how his life has changed since the end of the Cold War. All the while they are guzzling vodka and sparring with each other. Helena wants the Officer to give or sell certain weapons. The Officer wants companionship and personal validation. Anderson's outstanding performance, which reveals all the sorrows of aging and coming to terms with a life that has been less than perfect, is truly the work of an actor who has mastered his art.

Access Theater is located on the fourth floor of a walk-up a few blocks below Canal Street. The makeshift stage and minimal set do little to create any significant expectations. Yet each one of these plays is a small jewel that lights up the tiny theater and creates a scintillating evening.

Conversations on Russian Literature and Three More Plays
By David Johnston
Play Russia
Directed by Kyle Ancowitz Cast: Matthew Trumbull (Constantin), Laura Desmond (Elena), Carter Jackson (The Bolshevik Horde)

For Those of Us Who Have Lived in France
Directed by Kyle Ancowitz
Cast: Jane Titus (Mary, Queen of Scots), David Lapkin (Henry Kissinger), Amanda Ronconi (Lunelle Snead)

Mothra Is Waiting
Directed by Stephen Speights
Cast: Katherine Puma (Dot), Tracey Gilbert (Betty), David Lapkin (Stu)
Conversations On Russian Literature
Directed by Gary Shrader
Cast; Jonna McElrath (Helena), Frank Anderson (Officer)

Set Design: Robert Monaco
Lighting Design: Eric Watkins
Costume Design: Katy Garceau
Graphic Design: Bruce Goldstone
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes, one intermission
Access Theater, 380 Broadway at White Street
From 2/11/09; opening 2/14/09; closing 3/7/09
Wednesday — Saturday at 8pm
Tickets: $18 (212) 868-4444 or
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 19, 2009

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