nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
September 24, 2010
I know, I know, when most of you read that there's a production of Anton Chekhov's works you figure it will be an evening of actor angst and wishful whining about yearning for Moscow. I will bet that some of you know Michael Frayn's secret, however: Chekhov is actually funny. Now, far be it for me to lecture here on my own views, including my beliefs about Chekhov in general being much funnier than most productions let him be—suffice to say I think Frayn's correct. Exhibit A: the outstanding production of The Sneeze currently at City Center.
Artistic Director J.R. Sullivan directs this first offering of The Pearl Theatre Company's 26th season with an infectious broad comedy elan that this highly skilled ensemble of seven actors embraces with robust vaudevillian joy. It is a heightened burlesque approach rooted in truth of character—yet just over-the-top enough. These seasoned actors never comment on the material but play the situations for all their worth and it is, for the most part, very, very funny.
What Frayn did was assemble some of Chekhov's early one-act plays, all written while he was in his twenties, including the fairly well-known The Bear, The Evils of Tobacco, and The Proposal, with adaptations of his short stories. There are eight vignettes all told, and they afford the ensemble ample opportunity to showcase their collective comic abilities.
We begin with Drama, a sketch concerning a writer, played by Chris Mixon, and a would-be writer, played by Rachel Botchan. She worms her way into his home and persuades him to listen while she reads her five-act play aloud for his comments and playwriting advice. The nice twist in this bit is that we are privy to the writer's thoughts while the would-be writer drones on in the background. If you have ever politely listened to the exhausting and exhaustive ramblings of another while keeping a pleasant facade and inwardly fuming, this piece will hit straight home. Botchan is annoyingly wonderful and Mixon is endearingly perplexed, plus there is an excellent surprise ending.
Next comes Alien Corn, a scene among a Russian bourgeois, a French tutor, and a servant, played respectively by Bradford Cover, Dominic Cuskern, and Edward Seamon. Again, not a very deep piece, it concerns Russians making fun of the French and some very, very hot mustard There is an ironic hint at what would become French absurdist comedy here, as we embrace Cover's bombast, Cuskern's affrontedness, and Seamon's deadpan delivery.
The title sketch, The Sneeze follows. It is a pantomime set at a ballet, where a senior government official and his wife are seated directly in front of the official's lesser toady with his wife. The lesser man succumbs to an allergic reaction that has comic consequences worthy of Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. Mixon, the Conway-like toady and Cover, the Korman-like straight man official, play their parts to perfection, most ably supported by Botchan as the official's wife and by Lee Stark, as the young wife of the toady. Botchan's almost inhuman attention to the"ballet" despite the goings on is wonderful to watch and Stark, a new member of the Pearl's resident company, brings just enough impish disregard for officialdom to get her husband in even more hot water. (Mixon's sneeze, by the way, is a thing of comic beauty.)
The last offering of the first act is the aforementioned The Bear, a marvelous confrontation between a young widow (Stark) and a land-owning neighbor (Cover), the latter who comes ostensibly to get a debt repaid but who stays in spite of himself, for in a comically Shavian way, these two are attracted to each other. Robert Hock plays an endearing elderly footman stuck in the middle of this incipient romance manifested through rampant antagonism. The staging by Sullivan is classic farce and the three actors prove adept farceurs. It is an amusing, sometimes riotous, sometimes heartwarming way to send us to intermission with broad smiles on our faces.
The second act begins with Mixon taking stage in Chekhov's monologue The Evils of Tobacco (sometimes translated as The Harmfulness of Tobacco). Mixon's physical comedy, his timing, and his ability to get audience empathy make this one of the evening's high points—and believe it or not he surpasses his sneeze from Act One with a gargantuan display of nasal sternutation that nearly stops the show. Next is a two hander, The Inspector General, a blackout sketch about the title character (Cover) on his way incognito to make his rounds in a village via horse cart, whose driver (Cuskern) has some things to say about inspectors in general. This is basically a one joke scene, where the payoff is predictable, but it is executed well and fun to watch.
The seventh story, Swan Song, is about an aging actor (Hock) who has passed out in his dressing room after a theatre party is given in his honor. Coming to and venturing on stage, he finds everyone has left and begins a rambling monologue about his life in the theatre. This wakes up the promptor (Seamon) who has been making the theatre his home. All in all Swan Song is well-acted, like a Chekhovian antecedent to The Dresser, replete with Shakespearean snippets and the "Blow winds" speech from King Lear. The problem here is that it just isn't very funny—very poignant, yes, but not comic. As such, it doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the evening. And, well, it is also just too long.
The final scene is Chekhov's The Proposal, featuring Cuskern as a landowner, Botchan as his spinster daughter, and Mixon as the neighbor who has come to propose to the daughter. Once again the cast shines in this hilarious tale of a man who has finally summoned the courage to propose, but who is nearly thwarted by the object of his affections, who wants to say yes but just can't help picking a fight or two before the deal can be closed. All three actors turn on a comic dime with expert glee, in a well-staged, fast-paced, wonderful ending to the evening.
Jo Winiarski has given the company a fitting set, meant to be a small Russian provincial theatre, that also evokes a seedy vaudeville theatre with circus undertones. Barbara A. Bell's costumes are outstanding, gorgeously period to the time of a young Chekhov. Ann G. Wrightson's lights illuminate everything appropriately, setting all the right moods. Jane Shaw's sound design is particularly effective—just one example being the terrific sounds of a horse and cart in The Inspector General. Kudos also must go to Rod Kinter, whose fight direction is so good all the action seems effortlessly real—for instance, there is one stage slap that you know isn't real but will swear it is.
Sullivan and movement coach Kali Quinn have devised a subtle yet effective framing device for the evening. Utilizing some song and some dance, and having the actors announce the scenes and narrate as needed, it has a nice warm feel as if a troupe of Russian provincial actors were telling eight Chekhov tales in a loving, often hilarious way. Well acted and directed with a consistent eye, this production is well worth seeing. Chekhov is funny! Go to The Pearl's The Sneeze and see for yourself!