In the winter of 1901 or 1902, Chekhov visited Tolstoy in the spa town of Gaspra. It may not have gone well. “I hate your plays,” Tolstoy whispered from his sick bed. “Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.” But as Shakespeare said, time brings in his revenges. In the Mint Theater Company’s “Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories,” the two are sharing a bill.
What reconciles these writers is Miles Malleson, a 20th-century English theatrical polymath and the Mint Theater’s latest discovery. Having staged Malleson’s “Yours Unfaithfully,” a polyamorous comedy, and “Conflict,” a political romance, Jonathan Bank, the theater’s artistic director, has now paired two Malleson adaptations of short fiction: Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story” and Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By.”
The timing is right — seasonally, anyway. Once a New York winter hits February, everyone feels at least a little bit Russian and balalaika music goes down easy. So, despite some sloppy scenic art (Roger Hanna designed the set), it’s simple enough to enter the adaptation, called “The Artist,” and imagine yourself on a provincial Russian estate, alongside Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov), a painter on the wrong side of a midlife crisis.
Genya (Anna Lentz), the teenage daughter of a local noblewoman, watches as he daubs. Because she’s pretty and half his age, he decides that she must be “a remarkably clever girl,” unlike her practical-minded sister Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu), too busy running a local school and dispensary to spend much time mooning over landscapes or wearing Coachella-worthy flower crowns. (Oana Botez did the shawl-forward costumes.)
Bank, who directs “The Artist,” seems to give this shambling, ursine Nicov the benefit of the doubt. The character resembles other Chekhov artists and thinkers — Trofimov, Trigorin, Vanya — though none of them go as far as Nicov, who calls for “a new religion founded on truth and love.” (Genya, run!) And Bank allows lines of Malleson’s own invention like “Where’s the little girl — the kiss of a lover is on my lips” (faster, Genya!), to pass without comment. The piece ends, abruptly, with typical Chekhovian irony.
Tolstoy found irony indulgent. He thought that a play should have a purpose, tugging its spectator toward greater moral insight. “And where can I follow your character?” he once griped to Chekhov. “To the couch in the living room and back.” Accordingly, “Michael,” Malleson’s adaptation of “What Men Live By,” is a lot more didactic, a riff on “The Elves and the Shoemaker” shot through with Christian mysticism. No one kisses teenage girls.
On a winter’s night, a bootmaker (J. Paul Nicholas), his wife (Katie Firth) and their elderly yet childlike servant Aniuska (Vinie Burrows), invite a tramp (Malik Reed) into the peasant hut they share, only to discover that he has a talent for cobbling and divination. The play’s message, articulated baldly, is this: “It seems to men,” the tramp says, “that they live by care of themselves, but in truth it is love alone by which they live.”
If Nicov calls for a new religion, “Michael” promotes an old one, charismatic Christianity. This one-act marks the directorial debut of Jane Shaw, a beloved sound designer, who uses light and sound to situate the spiritual in the real.
Chekhov and Tolstoy actually liked each other pretty well. They both laughed at that couch joke. But these stories, adapted for separate occasions and without particular elegance, don’t have much to say to one another. Love, the title suggests, is the unifying factor, but eros powers the first play, agape the second. Like mismatched matryoshka dolls, the plays knock together when they ought to nest.
Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love StoriesThrough March 14 at Theater Row, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, minttheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
The post Review: Chekhov and Tolstoy Reunited in ‘Love Stories’ appeared first on New York Times.