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A CurtainUp BerkshiresBerkshire Review
Four of a Kind by Elyse Sommer

The Drama Dept. is a hip young theater group in New York that's making a name for itself through its dedication to forgotten or neglected .--i.e., their successful new take on a failed Tennessee Williams play, Kingdom of Earth, and George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner's June Moon, (now slated for a Fall return to a larger Off-Broadway house). The Berkshire Theatre Festival's artistic director, Arthur Storch also has a penchant for rummaging through the theatrical archives. Unfortunately, the neglected plays he's retrieved have not always worked quite as well.

Which brings us to this charming theater's opening production, four one-act plays written by Anton Chekhov many years before he established himself as one of our finest playwrights. When I saw Eric Bentley listed as co-translater (his translation and lyrics made the Jean Cocteau's new/old Mother Courage and Her Children an outstanding 1996-97 Off-Broadway event)_ my hopes that Mr. Storch had dug out a treasure rose. Alas and alack, while Miguel Romero's scenic design is colorfully cartoonish and Pamela Scofield's costumes are delightful, everything else about this enterprise is decidedly underwhelming.

The third playlet, The Marriage Proposal comes closest to hitting its mark, due largely to a fine performance by Nada Despotovich as the farmer's daughter who is the object of a hypochondriacal neighbor's (Davis Hall) matrimonial pursuit. Hall's shy-yet-eager-to-wed Ivan is essentially a reprise of the Walter Mitty-ish lecturer's persona in the second piece, The Harmfulness of Tobacco. Louis Guss who appears in three of the four plays lives up to the old saw about the actress with an A-to-B emotional range.

The opening and closing plays are as troubling as the middle ones. The Brute, which according to my press notes was Chekhov's most financially successful one-acter, stars Bob Dishy as Grigory Smirnov, an irate landowner who comes to collect a debt from a neighboring widow (Lynn Haley) with predictable results. When Smirnov's false mustache falls off almost immediately after his entrance you almost believe it's unintentional. When it turns out to be the first of several bits of shtik the play relies on for much of its humor, the amusement quickly wears thin. At the press preview I attended, Dishy's return appearance in the final play, Swan Song --a complete but not better change of tempo--sent the audience into fits of coughing. Having seen Christopher Plummer do a similar turn earlier this season in Barrymore* I couldn't help wondering if these were coughs of embarrassment for Dishy who's a solid actor but not exactly a virtuoso Shakespearian interpreter.

I'm a great Chekhov fan, and like Mr. Storch (according to his introductory comments) saw several versions of The Three Sisters, including a time-traveling version at Le Mama. * Now that I've seen these early one-acters I can't help feeling that the director might have served himself and his audiences better had he revived either a Chekhov classic or dramatized some of his stories (some like "The Darling" rival Maupassant).

I'll conclude this unhappily unfavorable review, by recounting an interchange with a local theater enthusiast sitting next to me. When he first sat down he examined the colorful and handsome scrim with its imposing image of Chekhov flanked by the image of a witch and a goblin, he wondered aloud whether it was really a good idea to do these little known plays. We both smiled and he said "well, we'll see won't we." At the intermission I turned to him and asked whether he was enjoying himself. He thought a moment and then replied, Well, if I were Chekhov and were around to see someone produce these plays which obviously were written while I was still learning to be a great playwright, I'd sue." While Chekhov couldn't sue since the plays are in the public domain, I agree with my neighbor, that he probably wouldn't be too happy with this handsomely mounted but otherwise sluggish revival.

In spite of this less than auspicious beginning, don't write the BTF off. It's a long season and they have some much more promising plays schedule--including an Alan Ayckbourn revival (Woman in Mind, Douglas Wright's fascinating cutting edge Quills and a comedy by Joe Di Pietro (of the long-running Off-Broadway hit, I Love You You're Perfect, Now Change.

FOUR OF A KIND Four one-act plays by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Arthur Storch
Featuring Bob Dishy, Davis Hall, Louis Guss, Nada Despotovich
Berkshire Theatre Festival
Stockbridge MA, (413) 298-5536
6/19/97-7/05/97 (opening, 6/20)

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