THE GHOST OF FIRS NIKOLAICH
nytheatre.com review by Aaron Leichter
There’s a danger in writing and producing a play that refers back to
earlier theatre. Tom Stoppard, for example, is an assured playwright,
who could be reasonably sure that viewers of Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead would catch the references to Hamlet. But
The Ghost of Firs Nikolaich, a FringeNYC offering at Theatre for the
New City, refers back to Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, a classic
though cerebral work of 20th-century theater theatre that many
theatergoers know only by reputation.
August 15, 2002
Fortunately, Sam Mossler’s play does stake out its own territory, which turns out to be a Naked Gun-style parody of Chekhovian life. Slaps, split takes, and pratfalls, dialogue like "Hello, Ivan – " "Grisha." "Gesundheit!" plus bawdy vulgarities and a surprise appearance by Cossacks—all of these gimmicks take precedence over the story of the Popov household. As in Chekhov, the servants bicker, a middle-class businessman drinks too much vodka and needs money, and the lovely sisters Sonya and Varushka gaze wistfully into the distance as they talk about falling in love. But in this play, a ghostly servant begins cleaning up after them.
All of this is funny, as far as it goes, but it never goes very far. There’s a difference between comedy and mere silliness, and Ghost of Firs Nikolaich goes for the latter when it might have attained the former. Even sadder, the humor gets in the way of the generally fine performances. Bryan Brendle, as Trotsky, shares a very nice scene with Meghan Love as Varushka, as they get high in the garden and talk about those Chekhovian topics of love, death, and the future. But generally, director Tim Herman doesn’t infuse the stage with much energy, and the work of his design team is as hit-and-miss as the gags.
Though the play avoids becoming an in-joke on Chekhov’s style, The Ghost of Firs Nikolaich veers too far into farce. It only succeeds when it takes the comedy seriously, and falls flat when it goes out of its way to make a joke. Although fans of Chekhov probably won't enjoy Firs, even fans of Mel Brooks-style humor may end up frustrated at the half-hearted attempt and lost potential for comedy.