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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Wharton One-Acts 2000
The View Beyond and Oh! Mr. Chekhov!
Adapting a short story for the stage is not an easy task. For the One-Acts that have become one of Shakespeare & Company's most popular annual presentations, Richard S. Burdick has accomplished the even more challenging task of freely departing from his inspirational sources, Anton Chekhov and Edith Wharton, to create his own theatrical tapestry.
In the first playlet, Burdick has taken amusing liberties with an incident found in a recent compilation of 38 unknown early Chekhov stories (The Undiscovered Chekhov, see link below). For the Wharton part of the evening, Mr. Burdick has also dipped into early work, combining the author's very first published story "Mrs. Manstey's View"(1891) with what was probably her first fictional exploration of the after life, "The Fullness of Life" (1893).
Thus we have two plays that are different yet compatible. One focuses on a young man in pursuit of marital contentment, the other is about an old woman whose life and marriage is in the past. They also strike a nice balance between humor and sadness.
As you might guess from those two exclamation points in "Oh! Mr. Chekhov!" this opening playlet is the one punctuated with humor. The hero of the piece is a university professor and would-be novelist, Alexei Markovitch (Luke Stanhope). It doesn't take long to realize that neither his desire for literary acclaim or marital bliss are likely to come to fruition. His talent is meager or non-existent. His interest in matrimony is more in the courtship than the end result. And so we follow him on his roller coaster courtship of three women (all played with vivacity and verve by Antonia Freeland).
First there's Olya Ivanofski, a farm manager's very practical daughter who, unlike Alexei, has no problem mixing "romantic intercourse with debits and credits." She seems infinitely better suited to the unseen owner of a profitable sweet shop -- and as it turns out, so is Zoe Andreyvitch, a general's daughter, whom he courts next. When he becomes involved with the pipe-smoking Zhenya Petrovna, things look up. She is after all an artist. As it turns out, her talents bring the final and rudest awakening. In the end all these flowers of womanhood prove that "a thorn is a thorn is a thorn, but never, alas, a rose."
As with all the one-act comedies in this series, the acting emphasis is on the actors giving free rein to the farcical elements. In this case, this is especially true of Luke Stanhope's Alexei. Typical of the series, there's a servant (Judith McSpadden) who enters and exits with maximum fuss and farcical gestures.
The more somber Wharton play uses the same minimally furnished set and cast as the first, but with the addition of Diane Prusha as the leading character, a blind, sickly old New York City widow named Mrs. Manstey. Ms. Prusha, who has often appeared in Wharton One-Acts, gives one of her finest performances as a desperately lonely woman who still retains her acerbic wit. But she's not amused when she's faced with a threat to the view, which like her happy marriage, she can only see in her imagination. Old lady roles seem to suit her even though she's a long way from being one.
Ms. Freeland this time plays Mrs. Manstey's new landlady, a crisply efficient young woman who has come to tell her about the extension to be put up before her window. Unable to deal with the pain of this final blow to a life filled with many lows and a single remembered high of a sexy Italian holiday with her husband ("we were married 47 years and 9 days and shared an eternal illness called aging"), Mrs. Manstey moves into the dream world of another life beyond her window. If it weren't for Ms. Prusha's poignant portrayal, the introduction of the other worldly The Spirit of Life (Ms. McSpadden) and The Perfect Man (Mr. Stanhope) would make the transition from urban realism more than a little pretentious. It's also interesting for anyone familiar with the original stories to see the way they have been reshaped by this adaptation. Wharton's Mrs. Manstey was neither happily married or blind, and she reacted to the threatened extension (by the landlady in the next building) with an act of arson.
Taken as a whole Chekhov and Wharton as interpreted by Richard Burdick make for an enjoyable summer entertainment -- especially with the terrace outside the theater and the parlor where tea and cookies are served at intermission once again open.
The Chekhov stories which inspired the first play are good reading and available in our book store-- The Undiscovered Chekhov: Thirty-Eight New Stories by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, translated by Peter Constantine
For our Chekhov page, part of our Authors' Album -- go here