Flies in the Snuffbox
nytheatre.com review by James Comtois
July 14, 2008
Flies in the Snuffbox is a collection of three light, fun, and silly plays by Anton Chekhov that made me leave the theatre smiling and chuckling afterwards. Director/translator Dustin Condren, with the help of a cast that seems to be having a good deal of fun on the stage, constructs a very enjoyable and entertaining evening of theatre.
All three plays deal with characters venting their neuroses (mostly directly to the audience) and seeking...well, I was going to write "love," but they don't seek that so much as they do "comfort" or "stability." Or at the very least, a temporary respite from their own neuroses.
In the first play, The Proposal, the hypochondriac Ivan Vassilevich Lomov asks his neighbor Stepan Stepanovich Chubukov permission to propose to his young daughter Natalya. After Stepan gives Ivan his blessing, Natalya is invited into the room so he can propose to her. Then, because they get sidetracked by an argument related to property—and eventually, breeds of dogs—things go wrong.
Horribly, horribly wrong.
Perhaps all this is just as well, since (as mentioned before) it doesn't seem as though Ivan is seeking Natalya's hand in marriage for love so much as domesticity and a chance to calm his murmuring heart.
The three actors in The Proposal, Thomas Debacker, Chance Mullen, and Letitia Lange, are all quite funny, especially Mullen as the high-strung Ivan, speaking his lines as if he's about to have a breakdown and collapse at any second.
The second piece, On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, is a one-man play about a professor, Niukhin, giving a lecture on the aforementioned subject, at the request—er, insistence—on his overbearing wife. We never meet the professor's wife, nor do we hear much about the harmfulness of tobacco: Niukhin spends the bulk of his time at the podium venting to his audience how unhappy he is and how tired he is of being afraid of his wife, who has him (and, according to him, his daughters) under her thumb.
You see, he wanted to lecture about something else, and actually enjoys tobacco himself. But his wife, however, insisted (no doubt as a means to get him to stop indulging in the habit himself).
Rick Delaney is simultaneously hilarious and empathetic as the henpecked professor.
The final play, The Bear, concerns a man-hating widow in mourning and a woman-hating man seeking to collect a debt from her dead husband. Popova, the widow, has vowed to never stop mourning and no longer interact with other people (except for maybe her servants). The debt collector, an angry, angry man named Smirnov, has vowed never to get intertwined with a woman again, since women be nothing but trouble.
The Bear is a frenetic variation on the typical "screwball comedy," where the two leads start off despising each other then find each other attractive. How Popova and Smirnov get from hating to loving each other is what makes the piece so amusing.
Rufus Sewell lookalike Rhett Henckel steals the show as the impatient Smirnov, ranting to the audience about the myriad times women have screwed him over. Daryl Brown also gets some nice moments in as Popova's haggard servant Luka. Victoria Levin is striking as Popova, portraying a believable foil/match for Smirnov.
What makes the show work so well is that Condren and the cast (and okay, I suppose Chekhov deserves some credit, too) get the right balance with the stories and the characters: everything is just slightly exaggerated enough, not overdone or excessive. They're silly, yes, but not so silly you can't relate.
Plus, they're all just really funny.