Rex Reed, currently the drama critic for The New York Observer, starts his review of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a very entertaining homage to (and satire of) Checkhov at the Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theatre, stating “I never thought Anton Chekhov was even mildly amusing.” Another critic (sorry, I lost the reference) noted in a review of the Classic Stage Company’s dreary production of “Ivanov” that had antidepressants been discovered by Chekhov’s time, he might never have emerged as a major playwright.
Actually, the disagreements about the humor in Chekhov go back to the original productions of his plays by the Moscow Arts Theatre under the direction of the founder of modern acting theory, Konstantin Stanislavski. Chekhov was consistently critical of Stanislavski’s interpretations of his plays and their relationship was a constant tug-of-war over the tone and genre of each work.
The most famous dispute between the playwright and the director centered on Chekhov’s crowning achievement, “The Cherry Orchard.” Stanislavski saw the play as a tragedy, while Chekhov intended it to be a comedy. After it’s opening, Chekhov wrote a letter to his wife, Olga Knipper, the original Madame Ranevskaya in Stanislavski’s first production of the play,
Why is it that in posters and newspaper announcement my play is persistently called a drama? Nemirovich Danchenko [Stanislavski’s partner at the MAT] and Stanislavski see in my play something absolutely different from what I have written, and I am willing to stake my word on it that neither of them has once read my play attentively. Forgive me, but I assure you, it is so.
In pre-revolution Russia, Stanislavski saw Chekhov’s portrayal of the withering aristocracy and the emerging middle class as a melancholy tale of individuals caught in a time of radical change, incapable of seeing the implications of that change for them and their culture. For the director, this was tragic. For Chekhov, these same circumstances were comic. In many ways, Chekhov’s “humor” was a precursor to modern absurdism. He saw his character’s excesses and insensitivities as an underlying human condition; a condition that borders on farce in which characters constantly bump up against realities they can neither fully perceive nor adequately respond to. Classic comic theory contends that humor emerges from the inability of the individual to overcome an obstacle, whether it is the absurdity of Charlie Chaplin trying to eat a shoe in “The Gold Rush” or Madame Ranevskaya ignoring the demise of her beloved estate while throwing an elaborate party for local “common-folk” on the night her home, land, and cherry orchard are being sold at auction.
“Ivanov” is the earliest of Chekhov’s major “mature plays” (an earlier unsuccessful play entitled “The Wood Demon” was eventually reworked into “Uncle Vanya”). And Chekhov did designate “Ivanov” as “a drama in four acts.” Yet the characters seem to suffer from the same extreme self-indulgences and inabilities to perceive their own realities that distinguish the characters in the plays Chekhov labeled as comedies (“The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard”). In fact, I believe we use the term “Chekhovian” to describe plays that evoke a unique tension between empathetic melancholy and absurdist irrationality – we feel for these people but we also distance ourselves with the humor inherent in their inability to recognize, much less overcome, their obstacles.
Ivanov is land-owner who married a beautiful Jewish girl five years before the start of the play. She renounced her religion and her family and changed her name to marry Ivanov and now she is dying of consumption as he comes to believe he no longer loves her. Ivanov is castigated by his wife’s doctor for ignoring her condition and not providing her with the appropriate comfort and support. Meanwhile Sasha, the attractive and naïve daughter of the parents who hold Ivanov’s very large debt discovers she is deeply in love with him and uses all of her charms to entice him away from his sickly spouse.
On the surface, this has all the makings of the type of tragic drama that Stanislavski saw in Chekhov’s texts. But there is one other central “Chekhovian” quality that must be considered to fully appreciate his intent: Nothing happens in Chekhov! Chekhov’s plays have virtually no plot and most of what action there is takes place off stage. Aristotle defined plot as “a sequence of events” and most descriptions add “with a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Instead, Chekhov portrays characters that are stuck in their situation, who go through no transformation as a result of the circumstances portrayed in the play. They start deluded and end deluded and no sequence of events either on- or off-stage seems to affect them.
Ivanov is unhappy and that’s an understatement. His character not only incessantly laments his depression, he wallows in it. His estate manager and confidant, Borkin, on the other hand, is consumed by optimism, meeting every one of Ivanov’s apocalyptic projections with a “can do” Mr. Fix-It response. Sasha, Ivanov’s female suitor, refuses to even acknowledge his deep depression, his marriage, his wife’s current condition, or Ivanov’s indebtedness to her family. She sees only the answer to her romantic dreams. And Lvov, the attending physician, lectures Ivanov on his irresponsibility as if he were a ten year-old misbehaving in a classroom oblivious to Ivanov’s unresponsiveness.
Each of these characters is very serious and Chekhov portrays them as fully developed three-dimensional people. But they are also very foolish. Confronted with any interpersonal interaction, Ivanov espouses his self-loathing, his fallen fortunes, his deep depression. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is his wife’s fatal condition, the lack of money to manage his estate, or Sasha’s love for him, the response is the same. The early 20th Century French philosopher, Henri Bergson, believed comedy emerges from “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” Much of our modern TV situation comedy is a testament to Bergson’s theory – think of Lucy in the Chocolate Factory in “I Love Lucy.” It is also the basis of ethnic and political humor – the living person encrusted with the habits and styles (sometimes stereotypes) associated their ethnicity or beliefs, a la Archie Bunker or The Jeffersons. This is also the source of the dark humor of Chekhov. Ivanov’s self-loathing is a mechanism imposed on his living being. And while we do not laugh out loud at this humor, we recognize its absurdity. Similarly, the doctor’s preaching to the unconvertible, Sasha’s love for the unlovable, and Borkin’s “can do” in the face of the uncontrollable are all examples of “mechanical encrustations upon the living” that produce Chekhov unique comic overtones. They must be a central part of any staging of “Ivanov.”
The Classic Stage Company’s production of “Ivanov” is directed by Austin Pendelton, who also directed an acclaimed production of “The Three Sisters” two years ago for CSC (and an “Uncle Vanya,” which I did not see, in 2008). Chekhov labeled both of these plays as dramas and Mr. Pendelton has taken those designations seriously – very, very, seriously. As the audience enters the theatre, we see Ethan Hawke, in the title role, in bed, occasionally reading but always agitated and uncomfortable. Hawke is a powerful actor and he draws the audience into his manic-depressive state at every turn. Most of the other cast members bring a similar level of belief and commitment to their excessive personalities.
But Mr. Pendleton, as with his production of “The Three Sisters,” sees nothing humorous in those excesses. We are expected to empathize, not criticize or even analyze. It’s not surprising that contemporary productions of Chekhov plays frequently meet with critical disdain and audience resistance. It is very difficult to strike a balance between Chekhov’s extraordinary ability to capture naturalistic reality and his use of that reality to distance the audience just enough for them to see the absurdity of his characters. In my experience, finding that balance is central to a successful production of a Chekhov play. The failure to capture and exploit that balance may be the reason so many avid theatre-goers usually think twice before purchasing another ticket to a Chekhov play. “Do I really want to be depressed tonight?” they ask themselves. Frequently, they answer “no!” and they should not be depressed by Chekhov. The CSC production accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish. At the end of the performance, the audience is drained and morose. But is that what Chekhov intended?
Christopher Durang strikes a somewhat different type of balance in his truly delightful “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theatre. Here the balance is the much more familiar equilibrium between an homage and a loving satire. Borrowing freely from all of Chekhov’s major plays (with a heavy reliance on “The Seagull”), Mr. Durang presents a modern reimagining of Chekhov, set in the present at a rustic country residence in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Vanya and his adopted sister, Sonia, live in their childhood home where they cared for their now deceased parents. Their parents were intellectuals who named all of their children after Chekhov characters. Both are supported by their famous actress sister, Masha, who arrives to attend a costume party with her latest romantic interest, a hunky 20-something would-be actor named Spike who can’t seem to keep his clothes on. His claim-to-fame: He came in second for a part for HBO’s “Entourage 2.”
As with the source material, nothing much happens. Masha, the oldest and the heir to the property, considers selling the family home including the 9-10 cherry trees in the yard. Vanya ponders whether 9-10 trees constitutes an orchard. Eventually, Vanya reveals his secret ambition to write a play about global warming from the standpoint of amoebas. Sonia manages to outshine Masha’s “Snow White” at the costume party with an imitation of Maggie Smith as the Evil Queen. And Spike brings out a jealous rampage from Masha when he takes up with the young and very pretty Nina, who is visiting their neighbors.
Durang recognizes the inherent humor in Chekhov’s characters and non-plots. He manages to capture the feel of Chekhov in a modern setting. Of course, he is less interested in the reality of the underlying angst and personal failures of the characters; this is, after all, a Christopher Durang play. But these are real people portrayed as absurd. Or at least, that is how the play itself struck me. “My play is not parody,” notes Durang in an interview, “The play takes Chekhov characters and themes and puts them in a blender.”
Unfortunately, Nicholas Martin, the director of the Lincoln Center production appears to disagree (hello, Stanislavski vs. Chekhov!). He seems to believe the play is a parody and he directs it like a Saturday Night Live skit on pretentious theatre. While the humor is certainly broader than Chekhov’s subtle cultural machinations encrusted on the living, Durang has actually created three-dimensional characters that think and respond as did their classic Russian counterparts. But Mr. Martin has directed them in a sort of “hell’s a popin’” rhythm, more like a French farce (without the plot) than a sitting room comedy-seria. In doing so, much of Mr. Durang’s homage is lost and the play becomes the very parody the playwright rejects.
Nowhere is this more profound than in the Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of the fading Hollywood star, Masha. Ms. Weaver plays the role with the subtlety of a middle-age community theatre actress playing Norma Desmond. There is not a moment that we can take this character seriously, let alone as real. Like so many of the inexperienced actors with whom I worked as a college theatre instructor, she never actually hears or responds to anything anybody says to her. She simply strikes an exaggerated pose and feigns a deeply felt emotion. Since Ms. Weaver is a veteran Durang player, it’s all together possible that this role was written for her – one couldn’t help but notice that Masha’s career took off with a series of B-movies about a serial killer (a career path that is not “alien” to Ms. Weaver).
Kristine Nielsen is hilarious as Sonia; but again, Mr. Martin frequently reduces her portrayal to shtick. She has a wonderful way of moving her voice from its normal pitch to a faux-basso for a punch line. While that technique always gets a laugh, it also turns her character into a sort of animated puppet when repeated time and again. However, she still manages to create a sense of pathos in her efforts to define herself at the costume party and in a telephone conversation with a prospective suitor. Only David Hyde Pierce is permitted to fully explore the Chekhovian elements in Durang’s script. Vanya is contemplative and obsessed with the miniscule, sighting the blue heron through the window (a.k.a., “The Seagull”), not to mention his play that stars amoebas. His portrayal suggests how Durang’s play might have evoked Chekhov far more acutely (or more to the point “a-cutely”).
Still, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is very funny. And, you do not have to be a Chekhov scholar to enjoy it – it’s just that much more fun if you have experienced a couple of Mr. Pendelton’s totally downer productions.
Under the Influence of…
Chekhov is commonly considered one of the most significant influences on the development of modern drama. His style is usually labeled as naturalism (as opposed to realism). The naturalist playwrights created realistic dramas that showed how social conditions, heredity, and environment shaped human characters. Realists seek only to portray people as they actually are; naturalists sought to reveal why they were the way they are. Both approaches rely on a high level of verisimilitude, the appearance of the real world as we perceive it.
But Chekhov’s approach to naturalism was somewhat different than other naturalist playwrights, the most prominent being August Strindberg. In Strindberg, we see characters actively playing out the influences of class, heredity, and the environment. Strindberg’s plays have plots; something happens. In Chekhov, the characters are the victims of the naturalistic influences. The plays evoke an odd balance of humor and melancholy that emerges as we watch these characters, entrapped in their naturalistic surroundings, constantly bumping up against these seemingly unmovable forces.
Chekhov’s plays are not driven by plot; therefore they appear to be a somewhat random collection of conversations loosely connected by everyday events. They meander from one idea or relationship to another. Characters emerge not from their actions but from their commentaries. Their speech is commonplace and their concerns mundane. There is “a method to their madness,” but it is not readily apparent. Yet, the effect on an audience, when performed well, is profound. Like our own lives, the lives of Chekhov’s characters are full of beliefs, contradictions, absurdities, and passions. We see ourselves in them even though we cannot exactly say what it is that we see. It is that illusive quality that has given rise to labeling certain contemporary works as “Chekhovian.” We know it when we experience it!
Many critics in the mainstream media have labeled Richard Nelson’s series of plays about the Apple Family as Chekhovian. “Sorry” is the third of four plays that center on a tight knit family of a brother and three sisters and their aging uncle in the small suburban village of Rhinebeck in New York’s Duchess County. Each play occurs on a politically charged day: the first play, “That Hopey Change Thing,” on the day of the 2010 midterm election; the second, “Sweet and Sad” on September 11, 2011; and the current offering, “Sorry,” on the morning of this year’s presidential election. As part of the Public Theatre’s adventurous PublicLab, each play’s opening performance was on the day on which it is set, adding an inescapable sense of immediacy to the play and a rather unique challenge in performing the play since the preview audiences see the play before the central event and the rest of the audiences see it after that event. Mr. Nelson even went so far as to update “Sorry” during the week that the Public was closed down due to hurricane Sandy with references to the devastation of the storm and its implications.
The members of the Apple family are middle-class New York liberals. Barbara and her sister Marian are public school teachers who live together. Their brother, Richard, is a lawyer and their sister Jane writes non-fiction (not with much commercial success) and they reside in Manhattan. Their uncle, Benjamin, is a retired actor who lives with Barbara and Marian and, as the series of plays progressed, has become increasingly debilitated, first by a heart attack and, in “Sorry,” his memory problems have progressed to dementia with potentially dangerous delusions.
“Sorry” takes place in the early morning hours of Election Day 2012. The family has gathered for a very personal activity unrelated to politics, committing their deteriorating uncle to an assisted living home. Beyond that single event, there is no plot. Instead, the family members discuss everything from the food they are sharing for their breakfast to the meaning of Barack Obama’s first term as President. Nelson carefully weaves the conversation in and out of related topics, moving between issues in the characters’ personal, professional, and civic lives. They speak, and think, like most of the members of the audience.
As with Chekhov’s plotless family dramas, it’s difficult to describe exactly what engages the audience in these conversations. We recognize these people. They have beliefs and frustrations like our own. Sometimes they capture an insight that rings true for us – as in their description of the value of voting: “Voting is like recycling — one person does not seem to make much of a difference, but the act of doing it makes us feel we are a part of something.” Sometimes they challenge our beliefs: “Is generosity a commodity that we only have so much of?” or “Does our celebration of Occupy Wall Street’s young protestors let us off the hook?”
But these characters are not absurd; they are not inherently comic, although they are frequently funny. They are very real people, fully engaged in their world. Nelson portrays them as naturalistic, products of the influences of class, heredity, and the environment. But they are not the victims of these influences. They simply want to understand; as Richard notes, “It must be wired into us, this need to make sense of things.” So, they look at their disappointments with Obama’s first term and decide it’s “not betrayal, it’s more like the everyday disappointment you experience in a relationship.” Toward the end of the play, they discuss what they would ask Obama if he won and they could pose one question to him. One sister laments, “you spent so much money scaring people and look what you have now – a bunch of scared people.”
One of the most touching moments in “Sorry” occurs when Barbara describes taking her uncle to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center to watch their archival film of his performance as Gaev, the deluded but affable uncle in “The Cherry Orchard.” Uncle Benjamin enjoyed the play but refused to watch the last scene in which the Russian family’s butler finds himself locked in the house after the family has left its former estate and the audience hears the sound the cherry tree being chopped down. Richard Nelson has clearly found a voice that expresses our expectations and our anxieties during this “Hopey Changey, Sweet and Sad,” time of ours. I cannot help but think that pre-revolution Russians might have had similar experiences watching Chekhov’s characters deal with the challenges in their everyday lives.