by Geoff Hoff~
It has been said that an artist should not be held accountable for his early work. Anton Chekhov was already established as an innovative short story writer when he was commissioned to write a full length play. (He had also written several comedic shorts for the stage.) In his prose, he strove to avoid anything overly dramatic or cliched, but his first full length play was filled with both. (The “shocking” moment that ends act two is almost unforgivably hackneyed and the cruel reveal at the end of act three is worthy of a daily afternoon television drama.)
Chekhov’s stated aim was in part to present life on stage as it actually is in life, but many of the characters in Ivanov are thinly drawn with only one color. He had not yet figured out how to write the deep, subtle, living characters of his later work.
The play has been called a comedy, a comedy-drama and a melodrama by various critics and there is certainly much that is funny in it, and a whole lot that is melodramatic. The story is of Nikolai Ivanov, a landowner suffering from depression, who is married to a woman who converted from Judaism (and was disowned by her wealthy family because of it) to marry him. She has contracted consumption. Her doctor, who is probably in love with her and is definitely an insufferable moralist that starts practically every sentence with “I am an honest man, therefore …”, wants her to be taken to the Crimea for her health. Nicolai not only can’t afford that, he also simply doesn’t want to.
In his house is his buffoonish uncle, Count Shabelsky, and his cousin/estate manager, the drunken Misha, who spends most of his time figuring out shady get-rich-quick schemes. Ivanov spends most evenings with the Levedevs, a wealthy family that he owes a lot of money to, at the expense of spending time with is sick and lonely wife. The Lebedev’s young daughter is infatuated with Ivanov and wants to rescue him from his troubles, which, we all know, is never a good idea. There is a wealthy widow who desperately wants to be a countess, a neighbor who only talks about his latest card game, an old, deaf servant and others. By the end, they have all collided in ways that cause great suffering.
There is also social satire about the upper-classes, prejudice, social interaction, relationships with money, the young, the old, the married and the widowed.
The production of Ivanov at the Odyssey Theatre, in co-production with the Evidence Room, is directed by Bart DeLorenzo with a decided emphases on the comedic aspects of the play. Some of it is extremely funny (four people at a wedding in the final act, one-by-one dissolving into tears, is hysterical.) However, we all know Chekhov’s quote that, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there,” so we know something tragic will happen eventually. (There are actually two guns in the first act, but only one of them goes off during the play.) The decision by the director and sound designer John Zalewski to end each act with a startling, thunderous bang further enhances that foreshadowing.
The pre-curtain and pre-act music is a familiar musical theme (from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. It took me forever to place it, I’m ashamed to say) that is played in an endless loop, meant, I imagine, to symbolize the endless loop that most of the characters have found themselves in. It is a jaunty, happy bit of music with an almost “Can-Can” feel, but the constant repetition makes it ominous.
The set design by Frederica Nascimento, is clever. It is purposefully non-specific in terms of period, as are the costumes by Raquel Barreto, but some of it is quite odd. Two floor fans in the back yard of Ivanov’s house representing … what? Wind? And the plastic wrap on all the furniture at the Lebedev’s would have made sense if it were the type of plastic wrap some people really put over expensive furniture to protect it, but it looked like nothing but paint tarps draped loosely over everything in a way no house-proud woman would ever let neighbors see, much less sit on during a party.
The second act is a party at the house of Lebedev. It is a decidedly boring party and the director made the common mistake of having the boring party portrayed by a boring scene. It could have been quite interesting and funny to watch these people desperately trying to make something of the evening, but becomes almost painful until the entrance of Lebedev himself, when things come alive and start to move forward. After that, the absurdity of the situation is obvious, fascinating and often quite funny.
The acting is uneven and runs from brilliant to simply flat. Dorrie Barton is quite good as Anna, Ivanov’s wife. We feel for her for her illness and we ache for her for her loneliness. Barry Del Sharman is probably a very good actor, but plays Ivanov’s depression so utterly that he is barely able to summon the will to move out of a chair or react to anything happening around him, which makes it difficult to sympathize with the character, no matter how much people misunderstand him.
Christian Leffler is delightful, if a bit one-note, as the ne’er-do-well Misha. Tom Fitzpatrick plays the buffoonish Count with an inappropriate laugh that grates very quickly. He also lacks any depth, needed to make the desperation he finds himself in at the end work. Instead, it rings quite false.
From the moment John-David Keller (Lebedev) enters the party, he is a breath of fresh air. He plays the man with such reality, such resignation, such humor that you can’t take your eyes off him. The character is an empty, silly man who has basically given up, but Mr. Keller gives him such humanity that you know exactly how he came to be who he is and why he has chosen this particular reaction to the particular life-loop he has found himself in. Brittany Slattery is also quite good as Shasha, his young daughter, both charming and a little conniving, as is Eileen T’Kaye as Zinaida, his wife, who wants to be respected as the businesswoman she is.
Daniel Bess seems a bit out of place as Dr. Lvov who seems to display whiney-ness rather than righteous (albeit misplaced) indignation. The rest of the cast includes Lauren Campedelli, Jay Harik, Danielle Kennedy, Eric Rittier, Alec Tomkiw, Beth Mack and Jason Liska.
Ivanov is performed Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through June 3, 2012
(Sunday April 15 at 5 pm, and April 29 at 7 pm. Wednesdays on May 9, 16 and 23 only. Thursdays, April 19, 26, May 3 and 31 only. No Friday performance on May 11.)
The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, LA 90025, just north of Olympic Blvd.
Tickets: Wed through Fri: $25 – Sat and Sunday: $30 – Students and Seniors: $5 off with ID. Union with ID $15 on Fridays. Pay-what-you-can (minimum $10) on April 19, 20, 29 and May 9
Reservations by phone (310) 477-2055 or online at http://www.Odysseytheatre.com