Checkov, Modernized & Naturalized

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

The Group Theater itself
began rehearsals in 1939 for a version of Three Sisters with Americanized
dialogue by Clifford Odets, abandoning it before opening as a result of a feud
between Stella Adler and Morris Carnovsky over what constituted "truthful"
acting. Numerous later American playwrights, such as Lanford Wilson and David
Mamet, have laid claim to Chekhov by publishing adaptations of his plays in
their own idioms, usually working from "literal translations" done
by others. And in 1994, Louis Malle and Andre Gregory’s extraordinary film
Vanya on 42nd Street (based on a four-year workshop exploration of Uncle
that never opened to the public) was greeted as a paean to the sort
of idyllic, open-ended searching that American theater artists dream of but
rarely experience.

Consciously or not, Jeff
Cohen belongs to this tradition of "naturalized" Chekhov. His The
Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990s
, first performed in 1990 and occasionally revived
and updated with different casts, was a startlingly sensitive and mostly successful
attempt to rethink Chekhov’s turn-of-the-century Russian characters as
recognizable modern Americans–its atrocious title notwithstanding. Cohen
made Treplev into an angry and cynical performance artist, Arkadina into a has-been
actress who bragged of performing at the Clinton inauguration and of reading
Shakespeare to Chelsea. And rather than being cloying and annoying as one might
expect, these choices were mostly apt, at times inspired, opening up many subtleties
in Chekhov that time and changing social conventions had obscured. The Seagull
still had some unsolved logical problems when I saw it in 1997, as does Uncle
, Cohen’s new version of Uncle Vanya set in present-day
rural West Virginia, but the wonder in both cases is just how much does work.

The new American Vanya is
Jonathon "Jack" Vaughn (Gerald Anthony), the son of a deceased U.S.
senator and who was once an aspiring writer and who has wasted away his life
on the family farm. He lives there with his earnest and unassuming niece Sophie
(Keira Naughton), who helps him manage the place, having sacrificed all ambition
herself beyond attending the local community college; his elderly mother Elizabeth
(Betty Low), a fan of Hillary Clinton and (Jack says) the state’s only
regular reader of The Nation; and Waffles (Paul Whitthorne), a pock-faced
hillbilly descended from the owners of the land before the Vaughns, who considers
himself part of the family. The regular routine of this group is upset by the
arrival of Professor Alexander Kaufmann (Ronald Guttman), Sophie’s father,
and his beautiful young wife Helena (Francesca Faridany), who come to live on
the estate after Alexander’s retirement as chair of the Columbia University
art history department.

Alexander’s plans are
to relax and write his magnum opus on 20th-century art "away from the homeless
and the stench, here in God’s country," but his health is uncertain,
and before the play begins Helena has sent for a doctor. The physician who arrives
is Michael Ashe (Bernard K. Addison)–a black family friend who came to
Appalachia straight from medical school years ago to serve the poor and now
medicates himself with booze, reefer and the ersatz mother-love of Mary, the
Vaughns’ old black housekeeper (Leila Danette).

Complex and forced as all
this may seem, it amounts to a well thought-out backstory, which most of the
actors in Cohen’s modest but strong production use to fine advantage. Addison,
for instance, plays a fascinating and deeply troubling puzzle of a doctor, whose
extreme states of indolence and passionate animation look very much alike. His
basic emotional confusion is especially disturbing during the midnight snack
he shares with Sophie in Act II (by far the best section); he flirts overtly
then with a young woman who obviously loves him, then succeeds in denying to
himself that he has done so even before the scene is over.

Faridany’s Helena is
equally effective as the opposite sort of damned soul, spiritually drowning
in her own lazy self-possession; with her droll English accent, tight designer
clothes and droopy-eyed, flat-mouthed expressions, she suggests quiet destruction
out of boredom even when her words sound utterly sincere. Generally speaking,
the moments of greatest clarity and discovery in Cohen’s Chekhov work (for
those who know the original plays) are those in which the greater sexual freedom
his characters enjoy suggests nuances of motivation and behavior that Chekhov
had to leave vague. He manages to invest these new worlds with warm life in
a way that anticipates and neutralizes charges of contrivance.

The really inspired creation
here, however, is Jack, whom Anthony plays as an ordinary nebbish capable of
stunning bursts of sudden acuity and disciplined rage. More than anywhere else
in the adaptation, the modern details of this character provide an indispensable
context of complexity, establishing a blatant self-contradictoriness that prevents
Jack from seeming straightforwardly pathetic, as often happens with Vanya. When
he runs off at the mouth about his newfound loathing for Alexander, for instance–whom
he once worshipped but now considers a fraud–his judgment immediately reflects
back on him, because we know that the slick Alexander does have a certain tenured-eccentric
appeal and that Jack ought to have been smart enough to see through his false
praise in notes telling him he "wrote like Cheever" or "like
Mailer." In one particularly telling moment, Jack is supposedly indignant
that Alexander would try to "bilk" the unsophisticated Waffles out
of his share of the estate, but he nevertheless shouts at Waffles, "SHUT

Problems remain, and some
are significant. Act I, for instance, is marred by an unfortunate peroration
by Dr. Ashe, who is seized suddenly and implausibly by an urge to explain at
length that his 1960s idealism has been channeled into environmental activism
on behalf of the local forests endangered by strip-mining. This sets up a wholly
unmotivated confrontation with Helena after she yawns at the speech, which makes
nonsense of their first meeting. Making Ashe an environmentalist is fine, but
his speechmaking must be pithier and pushed back into the later acts, as in
Chekhov; otherwise he seems like a fool. Also, the emotional build of the play’s
ending is needlessly interrupted here by an undramatic snapshot and a blackout
before the final scene; this and the equally anticlimactic Act II curtain are
big letdowns. On smaller matters: it would help a great deal if the professor
were played by an actor who looked old enough to be actually impotent and dying;
also, British-accented Helena’s disclosure that she was born in Long Island
amounts to an irritating nonsequitur.

All these problems are solvable,
even the major ones, and I very much hope that Cohen chooses to fix them, for
the sake of his own remarkable insights into Chekhov’s literal immediacy.

The Tribeca Playhouse,
111 Reade St. (W. B’way), 532-8887

Lola Montez In Bavaria
by John Jahnke

Lola Montez, the self-styled
Spanish noblewoman, dancer and courtesan who became infamous in the 19th century
as a scandalously independent, ambitious and influential female and a living
fillip to the conservative strictures of her time, was a subject ready-made
for postmodernism. She had little respect for mundane accuracy and fictionalized
her past whenever possible, leaving her many biographers clutching at straws
in trying to nail down the facts of her colorful life. There have been many
fictional works about her–plays, novels, ballets, musicals, operettas and
films–but John Jahnke’s Lola Montez in Bavaria is the first I know
of to place her at the center of an historically deconstructed action whose
point is kept deliberately diffuse.

Jahnke’s Lola–played
by Christina Campanella as a stern, mostly black-clad scold who keeps referring
to her carefree spontaneous creativity but never really exudes it–is depicted
in 1848 when she was the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and effectively
the country’s uncrowned queen. (In real life, Ludwig’s infatuation
with her cost him his throne.) With Ludwig played amusingly by Tony Torn as
a Vanya-like nebbish, Lola is placed at the center of a fantastic action involving
two satyrs (one of whom later transforms into Richard Wagner), a veiled Lola-double-cum-handmaid
played by a man, and a birthday party for three-year-old Ludwig II (Ludwig I’s
grandson, played by an adult actor as an infantile prig with a homoerotic lech
for Wagner). Lola makes a narrow escape in the end, having danced her famous
"spider dance" and sung an aria from Tannhauser with surprising
fullness and exuberance.

There is great potential
in some of these collisions, juxtapositions and moments of historical silliness,
but realizing it required a surer political and comic sensibility than Jahnke
displays. The show seems sometimes wholly hermetic, like the reflection of a
private joke, and other times ingratiating, embarrassing itself with crudely
literal explanations, such as: "It is ridiculous that the confidante to
the King is forbidden to perform in public," and "I am being rejected
by the lovely trees that will not offer me sanctuary… Ah well, who pities
the whore." Allowing Lola Montez’s spirit of impetuousness and wild
imagination to take over more might have kept this piece from becoming so Germanically

145 6th Ave. (betw. Spring & Broome Sts.), 647-0202 (closed)