Chekhov/Tolstoy at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St.

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Reviewed by EUGENE PAUL

“Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories” is what the Mint Theater Company bills these two one act plays being presented together, thus pushing as many alluring buttons as compactly as possible, the majesty and gleam of the great Russian writers’s names, the cockles warming throb of testifying that the plays are love stories, the sheer fact that they are being shown together as an indication of universal linkage, their being here in a theater as substantiation of their plausible place as theatre pieces. Lotta work there, lotta raised expectations. Compounded with the carefully cultivated reputation that the Mint Theater thrives on: finding worthy gems of theatre in the dusty days of glories gone, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. Ay me.

The stories, “An Artist’s Story” by Chekhov, and “What Men Live By” by Tolstoy, both well over a century old, were fashioned into plays by well remembered Miles Malleson, a highly industrious character actor and playwright around 1917 and 1919 from established English translations. Which makes them pretty old, too. The Chekhov story is now the playlet, The Artist: the Tolstoy is now Michael. Pairing them is a new Mint Theatre inspiration.

Set designer Roger Hanna’s painted backdrop of a thickly flowering tree establishes that we are in a garden. Intent, over here is Nicov, artist at his easel, (splendid Alexander Sokovikov), each brush stroke an aggravated effort to impress beautiful, much younger Genya (refreshing Anna Lentz) over there. Genya is studiously not watching him, instead deeply, not so deeply caught up in her book. It’s obviously her prop; you don’t believe she’s read a word. If we weren’t in a Russian garden, if we were in an English garden, a French garden, we’d be in the early throes of enjoying a slightly wicked comedy unfold. Nothing could be further from the Russian truth.

Even when Genya’s older sister Lidia (fine Brittany Anikka Liu) bustles in with the weight of her cares about the plights and tribulations the world visits on their peasants, snapping the fine thread of almost contact between baby sister Genya and handsomely mature, weary Nicov we are clearly in director Jonathan Banks’s determination that all is sober serious. Fun? No way. And I whisper to myself,”Stradalyets.” (Look it up. Aw, don’t bother, it means “Suffering”.)

Of course, then Bylekurov (J. Paul Nicholas) a well to do neighbor drops by. He’s unmarried. Still no comedy. Oy. And then, the mother of the girls (Katie Firth) shoos her daughters and that well to do Bylekurov into the house for a bite. Leave the penniless artist at his work. And his frustrations. And while you wonder briefly which daughter is going to come back, it’s no surprise when Genya, young, vulnerable, hot Genya returns. At which point director Banks, with the admirable cooperation of his two wonderfully inspired actors, gives us one of the loveliest, unexpected love scenes we’ve seen in a long, long while. Interrupted when Mother insists that daughter Genya return, but it’s too late. We’ve also begun speculating about the future. After this typical Chekhovian finish –or rather, unfinish – we embark without intermission on to the next play, Tostoy’s Michael.

The great, plumed tree is slowly, creakily rolled up and a stark, white, bare, upside down reflection appears, signifying we are in a peasant’s cottage and it’s winter. Russian winter. Matryona (Katie Firth) is annoyed at fey ancient Aniuska (fey, ancient marvel Vinie Burrows) for brushing leaves onto her freshly swept floor. Matryona is all keyed up. Her husband, boot maker Simon (J. Paul Nichlas) has taken the last of their money to buy leather for their greatest excitement, the Lord of their lands wishes a new pair of boots.

Simon returns, their money gone, without the necessary leather. Instead, he has found a mute, naked man (Malik Reed) dying of cold by the side of the road, and brought him home. Matryoa, instead of berating him, somehow finds herself giving the last of their food to the stranger. We are in a fable.

A year later, the stranger is no longer a stranger but a trusted member of the household and their best workman. They know his name is Michaael but he still does not speak. And the noble who wishes new boots (Alexander Sokovikov) has returned, spouting Russian (huh? Spouting Russian?)bringing fine leather. Simon turns over the making of the boots to Michael whose work is finer than his. In order to take proper measurements, the nobleman has them remove a boot. It seems zippers were invented long before we knew. But – this is a fable. Or – is this at last a comedy? Ah, but no. Director Jane Shaw is even stickier than director Banks.

And, yes, we were right, this is a fable. The stranger, Michael, is the angel Michael – but – you kind of knew? Then why does he go on explaining? Well, that’s the religious fanatic Tolstoy for you, not the world famous novelist Tolstoy, but part and parcel. Still, it was up to director Shaw and actor Reed to imbue Michael with the all but impossible task of convincing us. And in theater, it can be done. But not this time.
Chekhov/Tolstoy. At the Mint Theater, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Tickets: $35-$65. 212-239-6200. 90 min. Thru Mar 14.
Moments of loveliness among the dour. Rare Vinie Burrows, exceptional Alexander Sokovikov.

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