Strawdog Theatre

Politicians’ lust to dictate to artists is a lot older than Jesse Helms. The current crisis besetting the NEA may feel characteristically American–what other developed country spends more on military bands than on the future of its performing arts?–but censorship is a vice as widespread as fear.

The 1849 Russian comedy A Family Affair, the first full-length play written by Alexander Ostrovsky, Russia’s first professional playwright, offers a grade-A case of literary persecution. Its 25-year-old author intended A Family Affair–originally called Bankrot (The bankrupt)–to be a realistic satire on the greed of merchants who, as Wilde said later, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Banned from the stage immediately after publication, the play was described by Czar Nicholas I as “obscene” and “insulting,” a libel against the Russian courts and merchant class that contained “villainous” characters and “filthy language.” (Compare these epithets with current NEA obscenity guidelines and you despair that humankind ever evolves.)

Worse yet, though A Family Affair is a fine example of the reliable comedy formula of the fox outfoxed, Ostrovsky had the temerity to depict a property crime without providing a proper punishment.

After the loss of his job as a law clerk and five years of police surveillance, Ostrovsky finally cobbled up a “moral” ending, and in 1861 the play was permitted production as Svoi Lyudi–Sochtiomsya (It’s a family affair–we’ll settle it ourselves). The original version was not seen until 1881. All in all Ostrovsky wrote 80 plays, which influenced Gogol, Gorky, and Chekhov (among them Poverty Is No Crime, Easy Money, The Storm, and the wonderfully titled Don’t Ride a Sledge That Isn’t Yours), and established guilds to protect actors and playwrights.

Ostrovsky drew on what he knew to prove that property is theft. Working as a clerk at the Arbitration Court and later at the Commercial Tribunal, he had learned to loathe the businessmen he pitilessly pilloried in print–their easy amorality, contempt for customers, and repudiation of any standards but the Almighty Ruble.

All of which makes Ostrovsky a prophetic chronicler of America in the 80s. Cynical as tomorrow’s headlines, A Family Affair ruthlessly exposes the same easy-money mentality that today fuels junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, insider trading, hostile takeovers, S and L fraud, and abuses of Chapter 11.

Indeed, a phony bankruptcy lies at the heart of a plot that carries dog-eat-dog predation to its marvelously logical end. A crude, self-made businessman of the Ivan Boesky or Frank Lorenzo variety, Samson Bolshov has built a business out of such maneuvers as selling mittens without linings–that’s how, to quote another character, he’s “slithered into the middle class.”

As if Ostrovsky were punishing Bolshov’s upwardly mobile cheating, he’s given the merchant just the family he deserves, a horror clan right out of The Little Foxes–Lipochka, a snobbish, acid-tongued, gold-digging daughter, and Agrafena, Bolshov’s prudish, hysterical wife. Members of this family snake pit repeatedly exchange paint-peeling insults with venomous delight. (The pungent adaptation by British playwright Nick Dear, author of The Art of Success, is as corrosively idiomatic as Ostrovsky could have wished.)

With the connivance of his venal lawyer/confidant Sysov, Bolshov concocts a debt-repudiation scheme to defraud his creditors; he declares insolvency and transfers his assets to Lazar, his own obsequious–and supposedly trustworthy–assistant.

However predictable, the revenge of the drudge that follows is deliciously satisfying and, to any chamber of commerce, deeply subversive. The toadying Lazar, it seems, despises the employer who, to Bolshov’s eventual regret, has taught him all he knows. But Lazar has one soft spot–for Bolshov’s daughter–and he uses his new assets to woo the now dowryless Lipochka, who in any case is eager to flee her hideous home. The sinister flunky and the selfish climber thoroughly deserve each other.

Since there are no “good” characters to offer opposition to the rest, the only suspense is wondering when and how Bolshov will get his deserts from the monster of machination he has created. Of course Bolshov learns nothing from the betrayal, since Lazar is only playing Bolshov’s own game to the hilt.

Ostrovsky surrounds Bolshov’s merciless philistines with marvelous stock characters, all shamelessly justifying the larcenies they perpetrate–the shrewish matchmaker, parasitical law clerk, sassy servant, and kopeck-pinching valet; hypocritically they turn to the audience and plead for extenuation. Or are they accusing us of being no better?

In any case it’s pure catnip for cunning actors, and Charles Harper’s staging for Strawdog Theatre teems with caricatures as sharp as Daumier’s. Topping the list of cartoons is rubber-faced George Lugg’s nasty-as-he-wants-to-be Bolshov, a commercial thug with a devastatingly deadpan and snarlingly sour puss. Lugg gives no quarter to his character, and his mean machine feels rancidly right.

Lawrence Novikoff plays Bolshov’s nemesis, the scheming Lazar, with a Uriah Heep-like self-effacement as chilling as it is comic. Looking like a Dresden-china shepherdess with a whip, Mary Nahser portrays Lazar’s paramour, Lipochka, with bratty zeal; Adele Robbins is equally obnoxious as Lipochka’s harridan mother.

The neatly sadistic supporting characters are Pat Gallagher as the matchmaker, Paul Engelhardt as a dipsomaniacal law clerk, and Maggie Speer as the pumpkin-faced housekeeper.

The one thing that keeps this staging from reaching truly combustible comic heights–especially in the first act–is its sometimes slow and jerky pacing. With a plot as obvious and characters as blatant as Ostrovsky’s, the last thing you want is to let the audience get ahead of the story. Moreover, mugging done in slow motion is more grotesque than funny. But I’m so sure this shortfall will be short-lived that I saved my reservations for the end–I didn’t want to shortchange this mostly marvelous production.