Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Lady with a Lapdog"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


from a short story by Anton Chekhov
English translation by Ryan McKittrick and Julia Smeliansky adapted and directed by Kama Ginkas

Dmitry Gurov … Stephen Pelinski
Anna Sergeyevna … Elisabeth Waterston
Gentleman Sunbather … Trey Burvant
Gentleman Sunbather … Robert Olinger

Back in the mid-70s, my college’s theatre department hired an Eastern European director who, in turn, chose an Eastern European tragifarce for his debut production. Our department was all a-buzz --- ours was a cow college --- and student actors became quite solemn and continental when preparing for auditions. As I remember, the play was about an outcast who was tormented and finally destroyed by the hostile community into which she had wandered (not a musical, though today it would be). In his quest for the Real, the director cast a non-actress as the victim and rehearsed her in isolation --- the young woman didn’t meet the rest of the ensemble until she stepped onstage on Opening Night; the director’s theory was that an uncomfortable amateur amidst total strangers would convey the character’s plight far more convincingly than a trained actress with some imagination. I attended the production halfway through its run --- by then, of course, the non-actress had been “broken in” --- the young woman, not her character, looked unhappy and exposed and her far-from-supporting cast regarded her as a bump on the road to a Great Performance. Nearly thirty years later, I am again saddened and irritated in the same vein, this time by A.R.T.’s adaptation of Chekhov’s story LADY WITH A LAPDOG --- I came half-hoping that A.R.T.’s latest visionary, Russian director Kama Ginkas, would give us the true Chekhov --- but this is the A.R.T.; what could I have been thinking? If you missed LIBERATION! FILMS’ deplorable SEAGULL where its actors played the subtext as text, Mr. Ginkas can give you yet another lesson on how NOT to do Chekhov --- but also come for Stephen Pelinski, who manages to give an impressive performance despite his director.

LADY WITH A LAPDOG is a deceptively simple tale: Dmitry Gurov, a comfortable, middle-aged husband, father and womanizer, has a casual affair with Anna Sergeyevna, an unhappy young wife, while vacationing in Yalta; to his amazement, the jaded Gurov falls in love for the first time in his life, just as Anna does with him. The story can be read in a brief sitting --- Mr. Ginkas, in staging it as reader’s theatre (narrative and all), stretches it out to two-hours. How? Through fascinating detail and penetrating psychological insights? No, by staying on the surface, larding the framework with unfunny slapstick and having his quartet (Gurov, Anna, and two clowns) recite like … this … with the … accents in all … the wrong ... places. This isn’t Chekhov; this is William Shatner --- and, as with the above-mentioned SEAGULL, it is performed without an intermission. (The opening sequence, with the quartet popping up and down from behind a dune, is suspiciously reminiscent of what Jonathan Epstein and others did --- and did better --- with MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in Lenox.)

Mr. Ginkas, acclaimed in his own country, has directed the tall, lean Elisabeth Waterston into giving a truly disastrous performance: her Anna is a full-blown psychotic, alternately remote and combative; very much “now” and very much the stalker (why would anyone fall in love with this deranged woman?). Ms. Waterston’s flat, hard voice is not meant for shouting; here she is truly her father’s daughter --- her father being Sam Waterston, whose own voice shakes and congests when agitated. The two clowns are obnoxious --- would they be hilarious in Russia? How I longed to put out my leg as they clumped up and down the aisles and in and out the fire exits for no apparent reason than to break up the action (and our already taxed concentration).

Earlier this year, I scribbled that the SEAGULL’s director “committed the gravest sin: she made her actors look bad; foolish … I could not tell if any of them were even good.” In LADY, Ms. Waterston and her clowns swell their ranks, but Stephen Pelinski, a long-time member of The Guthrie Theatre, is more than good --- he may even be great with a presence, a purring, velvety voice, creative intelligence and a rumpled handsomeness ideal for everyday rakes or cads. He may be great not because his Gurov is a memorable creation --- it isn’t; Mr. Ginkas has seen to that --- but because Mr. Pelinski, impeccably trained, has adjusted himself to the mechanical demands placed upon him, from the stop-start speech patterns to a bizarro love scene which has him atop a ladder sending handfuls of sand down a winding sheet that ends between Ms. Waterston’s legs (well, that’s one way of having kids with grit). A Gurov as screechy as Ms. Waterston’s Anna or as asinine as those clowns would have the intermission-less audience walking out right under their noses; Mr. Pelinski, with his warm human-ness, keeps you in your seat (think of a Schnitzler character dropped into Beckett-land); there is a long, bravura passage when Ms. Waterston blessedly leaves the stage and the clowns are kept to a minimum and Mr. Pelinski comes damned close to making Mr. Ginkas’ concept work: is this a portrait of a proud, arrogant man breaking down, deconstructing, due to the power of love? Whatever the motive, Mr. Pelinski skillfully sings a disjointed aria where the sounds, not the words, reveal the man’s soul --- or, rather, where the man’s soul would be. A most impressive achievement --- and the triumph is Mr. Pelinski’s alone; on the night I attended, the applause heartily increased in volume when he stepped forth to take his well-deserved bows. Audiences may not “get” this LADY, but they know when an actor is doing his job and doing it well --- what an unforgettable Gurov he would be with a more sympathetic master!

Every A.R.T. set design seems to come with a gimmick: here, Sergey Barkhin has boxed a rowboat in blue and hung it upstage like a Yalta postcard without a “Greetings!” to its name; there is also real sand for Gurov and Anna to sprinkle on each other (is it real sand that the ensemble spits at us in the opening sequence?). Leonid Desyatnikov’s score --- gypsy violins and ‘70s piano soundtracks --- is lovely on its loop until it becomes discordant; jarring (“Anna’s Theme”?).

The program notes quote Kenneth Tynan’s praising Russian theatre artists at work: “The joy of seeing master craftsmen working in unison, with the humane poetry of and not just the neurotic trimmings of naturalism, is something I had never known until I had seen these perdurable players. This is Stanislavsky without Freud, physiological acting with the psychiatric glosses … It has subtlety and absolute inevitability, plus what Stark Young once described as ‘a magnificent dignity and grave, warm beauty like nature’s.” That was in 1956; what would Mr. Tynan think of this cold, unhappy LADY? As for A.R.T.’s comment that “By bringing our audiences and students in contact with some of Russia’s finest teachers, directors, and designers, this collaboration enriches our work immeasurably”, I can only say that A.R.T. has proven that pretense and mediocrity are sadly universal.

"Lady with a Lapdog" (13 September-11 October)
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide