Next Theatre Company

Set in the violent aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Stephen Poliakoff’s Breaking the Silence confines itself to a single, isolated place–a once-elegant railway carriage that now rolls ceaselessly through the Soviet steppes on its bureaucratic mission. This train carries its own revolution–two, in fact. One involves a breakthrough in movie technology. The other, psychological and domestic, goes to the heart of feminism.

Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, Breaking the Silence explores its revolutions sensitively but schematically; for all its bustle, the play is even more static than its setting. So is this Next Theatre Company production.

The title refers, in part, to the invention of the talking film, the goal that obsesses Poliakoff’s proud and stubborn protagonist. A man crammed with unrealized ideas, Nicolai Pesiakoff is on the verge of creating sound on film when he and his family are torn from their Moscow mansion, much like the Romanovs from the Winter Palace, and consigned by Nicolai’s new job to a former Imperial Railway carriage whose battered state resembles their own.

Nicolai’s ally, Alexei Verkoff, a commissar of labor, has appointed him a “telephone examiner of the Northern District railway” (though no telephone lines have been strung). Alexei, it seems, wants to protect Nicolai’s genius from–well, Nicolai. Alexei knows that Nicolai’s monomania and arrogance, his Anglophile snobbishness and contemptuous air of superiority–always a hazardous trait for a Jew in Russia–would get him in trouble if he weren’t forced to be always on the move.

But despite Alexei’s help, Nicolai remains dangerously blind to those around him. In the midst of a raging civil war, this infuriating relic from the old regime insists on keeping up empty appearances. He dresses up as if he were off to the Bolshoi, and acts as if talking movies matter more than whether the Mensheviks defeat the Bolsheviks. (Though they probably do.)

So Nicolai’s family, on top of having to cope with their hunger for food and for news from the outside world, must ensure that Nicolai survives despite himself. Nicolai’s once deferential wife, Eugenia, surreptitiously fills in the ledger Nicolai was ordered to maintain but loftily ignores: it’s the first of several occasions when Eugenia’s competence saves them. Polya, once the second chambermaid and now the family’s mainstay, shows equal resourcefulness, grabbing food that Nicolai is too proud to request. Even Nicolai’s son, Sasha, eventually tires of defending his father and dismisses him as a dilettante and “self-deluding old man.”

The changes that this cramped clan undergo over the four years covered by the play mirror those in Sir James Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton; there the butler for a rich and snotty family turns out to be their natural leader when they’re stranded on a desert island. Nicolai’s growing irrelevance creates a similar vacuum, which allows the women to find new strength.

Breaking the Silence is strongest when it shows how, despite the isolation of these exiles in their own land, the outside revolution trickles into Poliakoff’s limited world. The setting works equally well as a backdrop and as a microcosm of isolation.

But there are few gray areas in the play: Nicolai is quickly made the heavy, and little redeems him. Poliakoff never tells us, for example, who Nicolai was before he became a gilded prisoner; we’re to take his genius for granted. In the final scene, Nicolai’s superior intellect gives him his only dignity; his humility, his only humanity. But we never know whether Nicolai is worth the sacrifices he requires from others–or whether he’s even aware of them.

Because Breaking the Silence is more a series of changing situations than an evolving action, it requires vigor from its actors to overcome its schematic machinery. Harriet Spizziri’s staging provides clean line readings and crisp character delineation, but there’s little urgency to what we hear and see: the claustrophobia of the railway carriage seems to infect the acting, and threatens to derail the play.

Matt DeCaro’s Nicolai wears a sneer that too often covers up other qualities that might have been shown–like the charisma that Alexei must have felt in the man, and the ferment Eugenia assumes is brilliance. Dramatically speaking, Nicolai can’t be as withdrawn, as beaten from the start, as DeCaro suggests. Fortunately, in the last scene, by stripping Nicolai of his insufferable confidence, DeCaro finally makes his petty tyrant almost, but not quite, vulnerable.

Wronged as she is, Eugenia is no scenery-chewing, declamatory heroine: Janice Saint John does not play her as a Nora trapped in a traveling doll’s house. This wife’s courage is desperate, spontaneous, and convincing; the restraint Saint John shows in the role complements her patient character’s self-effacement. When Eugenia breaks through her own repression, she gives the play’s title new meaning.

As plucky Polya, Johanna McKay shows a more conventional bravery as she alternately attacks and defends Nicolai; she also conveys well the sexual fascination that Polya increasingly exercises over Sasha. Murphy Monroe plays the confused boy with the right teenage tentativeness. Wayne Brown gives Alexei–the play’s sole male hero by default–an earthy common sense, but needs to sharpen his character’s fear late in the play. Finally, Steve Juergens and Kevin Theis, playing two bored and lonely railway guards, provide a raw contrast to these elegant exiles.

Robert G. Smith’s railway carriage radiates a gorgeous decay, its aura greatly enhanced by Larry Hart’s realistic railroad and battle sound effects. Patricia Hart’s class-conscious costumes underline the Pesiakoffs’ look of faded gentility. Poignantly, these people must always be confronted with their own irretrievable past. Dante couldn’t have devised a more fiendish punishment.