Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
February 11, 2009
Russian writers seem to intuitively understand that great intelligence only enhances great emotional power. Playwright David Johnston's own combination of passion and brains is on display in a series of clever and moving short plays based on the literature of this strange and majestic land.
Conversations about Russian Literature plus Three More Plays begins with the three shorter pieces, all spinoffs of Russian literature with Chekhov as the focal point.
Play Russia, directed by Kyle Ancowitz, is a farce for Russian literature aficionados. Chekhov and Tolstoy fuse with Soviet literature for a dazzling riff on themes, ideas, and characters. A character named Constantin pines for the love of narcissistic Elena while she flits around dreaming of better days. Their languid pastoral is repeatedly interrupted by the Bolshevik Horde, played by one actor dressed like he's about to star in a Sam Shepard play. There are puns on long-winded Russian names (Constantin is Constantin Garilovich Persistentich, and Elena is Elena Stepenova Steppinoutavich, just for starters.) Also good for laughs is the actors speaking their own stage directions, like the moment where the Bolshevik Horde informs us he will play his role with a Cockney accent "for no apparent reason." This riff on Russian literature conventions is funny even if you don't catch all the references, if only for the conviction and exuberance Laura Desmond, Matthew Trumbull, and Carter Jackson bring to their parts.
For Those of Us Who Have Lived in France, also directed by Ancowitz, is the most realized and moving of the shorter pieces. Three characters from three different time periods ask the powers that be to allow them into Paris. Mary Queen of Scots petitions her uncle the Bishop of Lorraine to get her out of prison and to the safety of Paris. Henry Kissinger protests to an International War Crimes Tribunal that they can't keep him out of France because he would miss the food much too much. And Virginia housewife Lunelle Snead, played by the marvelous Amanda Ronconi, enters a non-fiction essay contest in the Ladies Home Journal to win a trip to Paris because ever since she saw Amélie three times she's been obsessed with France. This brief, clever playlet riffs on the famous theme of The Three Sisters: whether we're in trouble and want to return home, exiled from a place we love for crimes committed, or full of dreams for a place we've never seen, life always seems better in a place that we're not.
The third of the short pieces, Mothra Is Waiting, directed by Stephen Speights, suggests that no matter how far away dreams feel sometimes embracing the real world isn't always the answer. Betty and Dot are a sister act that's been together so long that drag queens are starting to do impressions of them. One evening, Dot tells Betty she's planning to leave the act to get married. Betty pleadingly reminds her of their private fantasy world where they eventually will be rescued from grimy reality by a magic moth and taken to live as princesses. Dot tells her that they're too old for those stories and leaves to pursue her human reality—but she may have done well to hold onto the dream a moment longer.
Conversations on Russian Literature, the title piece of the evening, is on after intermission and maybe the less said about it the better. It is the most straightforward and yet the most complex piece of the evening. Two people, a man in his sixties and a woman in her thirties, are engaged in conversation in a park. They are sitting on separate but adjoining park benches talking about Russian literature and drinking vodka. Their rapport is friendly and playful and at first this seems like a very successful first date. But slowly, slowly, the lives and agendas of the two people unfold. Gary Shrader's elegant direction showcases the marvelous work of actors Frank Anderson and Jonna McElrath and brings real emotional power to the piece's understated end.
Johnston's wonderful plays and a talented creative team present a satisfying evening that celebrates combining passion and intellect with the power and possibility of dreams.