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A CurtainUp Review
One is hard pressed to think of a better adaptor than Frayn, one of the foremost and lauded translators of Chekhov's major plays. Mixing and matching both short stories and short plays, Frayn could not be praised more for the way he has captured in English the essential absurdities, poignancies, and delicacies at the heart of humor that is so essentially and specifically Russian in nature. I can't imagine why this collection has taken so long to cross the ocean after it was first presented in London in 1983 and in a revised version in 1988. The task finally has been accomplished with cleverness, grace and style by the Pearl Theatre Company.
Set Designer Jo Winiarski has evoked a small theater in a Russian province. A false proscenium of red and green curlicues frame the sketches that are amusingly presented as a vaudeville show, each play seamlessly beginning where the previous one has just ended and as the actors assume with alacrity their various identities with the help of Barbara A. Bell's colorful costumes.
My intention is not to describe what happens in each play, but I can assure you that what does happen provokes lots of spontaneous laughter. The actors have created characters and images that won't easily be forgotten.
In Drama, "a lady with literary ambitions" (Rachel Botchan) gains access to the home of a well-known writer (Chris Mixon) who, try as he may, cannot deter her from reading her lengthy, cliché-filled text in its entirety. What torment for the writer who finally figures out how to end the aggressive lady's assault. In Alien Corn, it is the question of how much belittling and how many insults can a meek and mild French tutor (Dominic Cuskern) take at the hands of boorish Russian landowner (Bradford Cover) as they dine together in a country café.
Cover, who only last year splendidly played Horace in (a very traditional) The Little Foxes at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and is a resident Pearl Theatre Company member since 1994, returns immediately as the very model of a pompous and stiff Government official. The chameleon like Mixon is back as an annoyingly reactionary minor Government official in The Sneeze. The ridiculous lengths to which the minor official, egged on by his wife (Lee Stark), goes to get the goat of the major official and his snooty wife (Botchan) while seated behind them at the opera provides the fuel for a tragic-comic ending.
Act I ends with my favorite, The Bear, in which a grieving widow (Stark) and a enraged landowner (Cover) become engaged in a ferocious, but romantically stimulating battle of the sexes. By this point we are mostly in awe of the entire ensemble. If one actor stands out, however, it is a marvelously manic Mixon who is making his Pearl Theatre Company debut. He manages to stay just this side of a complete nervous breakdown as he careens through the classic Chekhov monologue The Evils of Tobacco.
The balance of the evening includes The Inspector-General (not to be confused with Gogol's inspector); Swan Song, a heart-breaking vignette in which Hock poignantly portrays an aging actor at the end of a long career; The Proposal, in which a young and very obstinate and argumentative woman (Botchan) and her suitor (the inimitable Mixon), who is all ticks and twitches, almost kill each other before a match is made.
I am pleased to say that the vibrancy of the young Chekhov is perfectly matched with the vitality of the Pearl Theatre Company.