By Lucy Komisar
It’s not really Chekhov’s first play. It a clever take-off on a manuscript discovered in a Russian safe deposit box in 1921, the 19-year-old Chekhov’s first try and justifiably never staged. Overabundance of characters, themes and action; it needed an editor.
Author/directors Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel of the Irish experimental theater group Dead Centre took up the challenge. But rather than simply winnow away the chaff (it ran five hours) and present the rest onstage, they have helped make Chekhovian sense by unpacking everything to the audience as the play unfolds. And not just this play, but the playwright’s famous memes, such as the iconic gun. All done through headsets!
You get the actors speaking through one ear and the director (Moukarzel) whispering or ruminating through the other. (You don’t have to wear the headsets, but then you get only the actors’ voices.) The whole first part is fascinating as he explains, as a director would to actors, what Chekhov’s lines mean.
The set-up has the familiar bourgeois pieces. The interior garden of Anna Petrovna’s estate. Green vines climb up the red brick walls.
A long wood table with white cloth and bottles of red wine. (Set design by Andrew Clancy.)
His stock characters include a widow (Anna Petrovna Voinitseva/Ali White) who can no longer afford the upkeep on her grand house, a real estate investor (Porfiry Semyonovich Glagolyev/Daniel Reardon) to whom she owes a debt, a school teacher (Dylan Tighe/Sergey Pavlovich Voinitsev) who never realized his dreams, a doctor (Nikolay Ivanovich Triletsky/Paul Reid) who cannot cure himself. (Chekhov was a doctor.) And “The winter dragged on.”
The Director explains the significance of property, inheritance and debt. There is a gun. He explains that it’s called “Chekhov’s gun”: If a gun is introduced in the first act, it has to be used by the end of the play. And Platonov, the iconic character who is talked about but never appears.
Wait a minute. Platonov does appear! A young man walks out of the audience to join the cast. He never speaks. His name is unlisted in production photos.
Being an investigative journalist, I discovered (via a query to the press agent) that 20 minutes before curtain, he is selected from the audience by the directors and follows instructions in his headset tuned to a channel the audience doesn’t have. A secret that is kept.
The Director comments on the acting. Sofya says “I’ve got a headache.” The Director tells us “she underplayed that line.” He says, “They talk about Platonov, but he’s a useful failure, the superfluous man.” There’s a reference to a bank. He explains, “I cut it.” Also, he cut out a baby. Here:
Sofya (wife of the late general’s son: What do you do, Alexandra Ivanovna?
Anna (widow of general): She’s having a baby.
Sasha (wife of Platonov): Am I? (looks down.) Oh yes, I am.
Sasha seems genuinely surprised.
The Director: “In the original, she’s given birth to her son already … But children on stage are a real nightmare. So I cut him. And I thought the image of a pregnant woman is somehow fuller …” Then he adds: I didn’t know she was pregnant when I cast her. I don’t think she did either. She doesn’t know who the father is.”
He moans, “It’s just wealthy people moaning about their mansions… There are some good people. I’ve cut the good people.” And, “The play is getting in the way of me explaining it.”
You get the idea! The first part, maybe two-thirds of the play, is clever. But the last part is a surreal shambles.
The actors pull off their mikes — and in one case a bald wig — and revert to real people, in Ireland. A huge ball, its top in flames, swings out over the stage, walls are smashed, two guys strip to BVDs. (Couldn’t they find two whose stomachs don’t fold over their waistbands?) The doctor phones to order in Chinese food. Anna, who has previously said, “The house is falling to pieces but it’s worth preserving, isn’t it?”, now says, “We’re falling to pieces but we’ll rebuild ourselves.”
Sofya hates capitalism and student loans. Sergey Voinitsev declares, “I’m such a fraud. I’d have loved to be the lead at the National Theatre. Playing one of the great parts in Shakespeare or Chekhov…now I just do voice-overs for cars and banks.” The doctor is spitting blood. There is a pistol shot, and a seagull falls from the sky.
Here I’d take a stage direction from the Director. I would cut all following the finish of Chekhov’s “play” and end with the seagull smashing onto the stage. As it did. But it should have happened earlier. Curtain.
Note, there is no paper or online playbill. As as assist, here is the cast and characters:
Anna Petrovna Voinitseva, widow of general: Ali White
Sergey Pavlovich Voinitsev, general’s son by first marriage: Dylan Tighe
Sofya Yegorovna, wife of Sergey Voinitsev: Alexandra Conlon
Nikolay Ivanovich Triletsky, the doctor: Paul Reid
Aleksandra Ivanovna (Sasha), doctor’s sister, wife of Platonov: Tara Egan-Langley
Porfiry Semyonovich Glagolyev, local landlord: Daniel Reardon
“Chekhov’s First Play,” devised and directed by Dead Centre artistic directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd Dead. Choreography by Liv O’Donoghue. Irish Arts Center 726 11th Avenue (51-2 Sts), NYC. firstname.lastname@example.org. Runtime 70min. Opened Oct 23, 2022. Closes Nov 6, 2022. Review on New York Theatre-Wire.