A Nasty Story
nytheatre.com review by Emily Otto
August 15, 2008
In Fine Feathered Friends' production of A Nasty Story, a Russian businessman loftily proclaims his unconditional love for all humans, regardless of their financial or social position. To prove his point, he decides to crash the wedding celebration of his lower-class employee, resulting in a farcical disaster of awkwardness, drunken antics, and embarrassment for all involved.
Playwright/actor Sara Jeanne Asselin has freely adapted the play from a short story by Dostoevsky. At the heart of the story is the idea that theory is not easy to translate into practice. While this point is undoubtedly true, I found myself thinking during the performance that the tricky business of translating and adapting a century-old Russian short story to make a point for a contemporary theatre audience is rather like bringing a lofty idea to a party and trying to hang out with a crowd that may or may not get it.
This idea can't be lost on Asselin. She's clearly an intelligent writer, and her language is vivid and funny. She deals head-on with the challenges of translation and adaptation by playing the character of the Narrator, who is accompanied by her sidekick Dostoevsky, played with an amusing weary resignation (and a great Russian accent) by Brian Belcinski. The two of them frequently bicker over word choices and Americanized names while introducing the various characters in the story, even offering a shout-out to the great Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They also occasionally converse with the protagonist, Johnny Pralines, instructing him and arguing with him about his choices.
While the device is entertaining, it distracts from the actual story. A plot that relies on the concept of class division is difficult enough to pull off in America, where we tend to avoid the subject, and so much time is spent commenting on the translation and adaptation of the story that we lose the drive of the narrative.
Melissa Firlit's direction is lively, particularly in several inventive dance/movement sequences, including a hilarious demonstration of the six stages of Russian drunkenness. However, other directorial choices feel a little unfocused. The cast employs inexplicable random dialects ranging from American Southern to Cockney-ish, seemingly for comic effect. The costumes, music, and tone imply 1930s and 40s, but the text makes frequent references to 21st-century devices and institutions. The end result, while entertaining, feels like a decent idea that's lost its way after too many detours.
The cast brings a spirited energy and great comic chops to the proceedings (with standout performances in multiple roles by Keith Foster and Samantha Tunis). In the latter half of the production, when there are fewer narrative intrusions and the ensemble is just playing the party scene, the show picks up steam and becomes truly engaging.
There's a lot of fine work being done in this production, but it would benefit from a sharper focus. Even though the execution isn't entirely effective, the intentions behind it are solid. The evident intellect and good humor on display here make Fine Feathered Friends a company to keep an eye on in the future.