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CurtainUp Reviews
Misha's Party

The characters in this play all speak the same language, regardless of what country they come from.
--Two optimistic playwrights who speak different language.
The two optimistics whose quote appears at the top of the cast list in the program notes for Misha's Party are an American, Richard Nelson, and a Russian, Alexander Gelman. Their unique collaboration grew out of a matchmaking program developed by director Lawrence Sacharow. The initial intent was translation oriented--an American playwright designated to translate (and adapt) the work of a Russian and vice-versa.

Nelson, intrigued by the idea of cross-cultural fertilization opted out of the you-translate-my-play-I'll-translate-yours modus operandi to a collaboratively conceived brand new work. The resulting equation consisted of Nelson, Gelman, two translators and two sponsoring companies- the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Moscow Art Theater, both of which produced the play, Mischa's Party --and now, the Williamstown Theatre Festival which is giving the play its American premiere.

Mischa's Party is an example of two creative minds finding a common language to brew an enjoyable and stimulating broth. While it is somewhat unbalanced in that its Russian characters are more engaging and well developed than the American ones, the play is a noteworthy alternative to the current vogue of having playwrights translate and adapt the works of dead playwrights The chef for this amalgam of Americans, Russians and Russian emigres is the original matchmaker, Lawrence Sacharow. The players invited to the party not only squeeze every drop of humor from the pivotal character's chaotic relationships but tap into the emotional and political ideas bubbling beneath the surface.

The plot's comedic wellspring is a dinner arranged by Misha (Harris Yulin) to celebrate his 60th birthday and to reconcile his past. From that past he's invited two ex-wives (Laurie Kennedy- Katia and Kate Burton-Natasha) and their husbands (Gerry Bamman-Fiodor and Tim Irwin-Valeriy). To complete the family circle there's his twenty-five-year-old future wife (Melissa Bowen) who's two years younger than her roommate and his daughter (Jennifer Dundas). In Misha's suit pocket is a speech designed to effect this reconciliation. As if the volatility of this core guest list weren't enough, the party takes place on August 20,1991 and the hotel dining room faces the Russian White House being besieged during an attempted coup d'etat. That this political turbulence within earshot reflects the familial turbulence on stage is obvious from the title in which the playwrights slyly hint that Misha, which is a nickname for Mikhail (as in Gorbachev), is not the only one whose party does not end as expected. This political subtext also contributes a parallel story centering on a smaller group of American travelers. These include Mary, a woman Misha's age (Penny Fuller) with her own uneasy family situation. Her rebellious sixteen-year-old granddaughter (Tertia Lynch) is having an affair with Fred (Greg Naughton), a younger version of the womanizing Misha. What's more, she's disappeared into the tank-filled Moscow streets, just as her. grandmother, lover and a friend of her father's (P. J. Brown) are trying to get them safely out of the country.

What gives the stockpot of amusing dialogue its zesty flavor are an impressive number of superb performances. Topping the list are Harris Yulin, Kate Burton and Gerry Bramman.

Yulin's Misha is wry and understated. You know that the women we meet are just the tip of the perennial iceberg of his sexual adventures, yet he manages to make you understand why his wives were so fully and passionately alive when they were with him--and why their devoted current husbands have not really filled the void he left. If you look at his character as a metaphorical embodiment of Mother Russia and the passions it roused (and disappointed), Yulin's dark-suited and rueful Russian moodiness and macho sexuality is especially apt.

Kate Burton, as Natasha, gives one of the evening's most fully realized and dimensional portrayals. She is the image of the melancholy, artistic Russian. Her interchanges with Misha's other wife are pricelessly funny, especially the wedding night reminiscences prompted by his latest love. Her description of life in America in a house full of modern conveniences, including " a dishwasher that isn't another woman" and an extra bathroom "with a shower with good pressure" is a model of comic timing. Yet she is only half-heartedly echoing her 100% committed-to-the-American dream husband. Underneath her own Andy Warhol-like involvement with objects she also gives us the glimpse of the deeper yearning for her roots as an artist--an artist who now paints buildings instead of people. While Burton was my favorite of Misha's leading ladies, Laurie Kennedy is excellent as the first wife who could no more hate Russia than she can hate Misha, as is Melissa Bowen as Lydia.

The third standout performance is Gerry Bramman's as Natasha's anti-change, anti-American husband Fiodor. He's as funny here as he was in Nixon, Nixon , in which he starred off-Broadway a few seasons ago. Of all the funny moments, his were the most rib-ticklingly funny.

On the American side of the cast ledger, only Penny Fuller as the endearing and glamorous American grandmother, has a large role that intersects meaningfully with the basic situation of the Russian birthday party. The smaller roles of both the Russian and American contingents also make smaller impressions.

Praise is also due to the production team. Douglas Stein's set contributes here as mightily as it did in a recent off-Broadway production, TheDevils (see our review). Kurt Kellenberger (sound) and Rui Rita (lighting) enhance this Williamstown production as they have previous ones.Martin Pakledinaz' costumes are colorful and fun, from Penny Fuller's lavender ensemble to Natasha's arty Russian look.

To sum up, some questions . . .

Do Misha's guests ever get to hear the speech he tries all evening to deliver? No.

Do the evening's reminiscences and table-talk finally tie up the loose ends in these at once hilariously and poignantly intertwined lives? No more, than the events beyond their hotel windows resulted in a definitively better or worse political situation. Solutions that seem simple are too unlikely to remain simple and past mistakes are not so readily undone.

Is Misha's Party a polemical as well as a comic play? Only in the sense, that it will probably send you from this dinner party with a generous doggie bag of ideas to think about and discuss.

Are those of you unable to come to Williamstown likely to see this play on the road or on Broadway? With downsizing the watchword for American producers, like business executives everywhere, the production of a large cast play like this is generally onsidered too costly and risky by all but large non-profit organization like the Roundabout or Lincoln Center. Since Misha's Party has good cinematic possiblities, its future in terms of large audiences might just be on the big screen.
© August 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

Co-written by American playwright Richard Nelson and Russian playwright Alexander Gelman.
Directed by Lawrence Sacharow
With Gerry Bamman, Melissa Bowen, P.J. Brown, Kate Burton, Jennifer Dundas. Penny Fuller, Tom Irwin, Laurie Kennedy, Greg Naughton, Harris Yulin
Main Stage/Williamstown Theatre Festival
Williamstown, MA
8/20/97(opening 8/21)-8/31/97

Some Details About the Misha's Party Collaboration
Sasha Gelman and Richard Nelson first met in Moscow in October 1991 as part of a Russian-American Exchange Program set up by Lawrence Sacharow during his tenure as artistic director of River Arts Repertory in Woodstock, N.Y. The program's initial aim was to pair playwrights in the hope of engendering an interest in adapting each other's plays for each one's respective country. Nelson, took this a step further, and proposed that he and Gelman write an original play together.

The playwrights worked together for two weeks during that first meeting, then met again, months later, at the MacDowell Artists' Colony in Petersborough, New Hampshire where they developed the basic story line.

When Gelman completed his script treatment of the story line worked out at MacDowell, they met once again (in Moscow). Revisions and translation/adaptation into English and Russian followed.

Neither playwright speaks the other's language, so both relied heavily on Moscow and the US translators Ella Levdanskaya and Irina Vechnyak. As Nelson writes in the Williamstown program notes, "they may have written more of this play than they know."

Some Details About the Events of August 19-21, 1991
In the early hours of August 19th Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest in his Crimean dacha. The hardliners from the Kremlin leadrship --Vice-President Gernady Yanayev and his associates--had taken over and introduced a state of emergency.

On the night of August 20th (the night of Misha's Party), Yeltsin and his followers who had taken refuge in The White House seemed under imminent attack from tanks and KGB troops outside the doors of the building.

On August 21, the troops withdrew and Gorbachev was brought back to Moscow which Yeltsin now controlled. The Ukraine, Moldavia and Byelorussia declared themselves independent. It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

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