Victory Gardens

In Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit, one of the characters worships Richard Wagner and attempts to write a scholarly biography of the legendary composer. But after years of work, he abandons the project. “Everything I’ve written about him reduces him to my own sort of size,” he says. “Which makes him too small to be interesting to me. . . . I diminish what I most admire.”

The same assessment applies to Chekhov in Yalta, by John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow; their homage to the Russian dramatist ultimately diminishes the man. When they mimic his naturalistic dialogue, they produce mundane, improbable speeches. When they try to build their plot around the characters’ personalities as Chekhov did, they end up with vapid soap opera. And when they try to depict Chekhov as an intelligent, witty, and decent man, they create a drab, sickly introvert whose dignity is salvaged only by Dennis Zacek’s wonderfully calm, self-assured performance in the title role.

This left me wondering whether Driver and Haddow are worshipers of Chekhov or assassins. They profess to adore the writer, and they certainly attribute saintlike qualities to him.

Their play opens with Chekhov, a doctor, returning home from an all-night vigil at the bedside of Leo Tolstoy’s wife, who, it turns out, had merely a stomachache. Despite his own need for rest, Chekhov stayed up, patiently listening to Tolstoy “expound on the simplicity of the Russian soul for the rest of the night.”

At home the doctor finds a peasant waiting for him, a frail, stooped man who displays all the symptoms of terminal consumption–the disease that Chekhov knows is about to claim his own life. Chekhov not only refuses to charge the peasant for the exam, but he gives the man a ruble. “Buy something for your wife,” he says.

Then, as long as he’s performing good deeds, he gently admonishes his servant girl for taking late-night walks in the cemetery with “a notorious cad.” When she leaves, he murmurs to himself, “The body of a goddess, the brain of a flea,” and takes out his notebook to record the witticism for use in a short story or a play.

All right, all right, he’s a swell guy. But hero worship makes poor drama. No matter–Driver and Haddow are not nearly as interested in creating drama as they are in paying tribute to the dramatic structure of Chekhov’s plays. Operating on the premise that imitation is the highest form of flattery, they proceed to construct a play that apes the playwright’s style, but utterly lacks his insight into human nature. Chekhov in Yalta is certainly Chekhovian in form, but in content it remains tiresome and artificial. The only fun might come from trying to pick out the sly allusions to Chekhov’s life and work, which makes the play a smug “in” joke for those already familiar with Chekhov.

Chekhov’s plays were innovative because they eschewed action and melodrama in favor of emotional truth. His characters seldom display the strong “stage” emotions that are the stock-in-trade of most playwrights. Instead, they make small talk, philosophize, criticize each other, occasionally squabble–in other words, they display the muted emotions actually seen in everyday life. Through these emotions, the characters generate a collective mood that constitutes the primary action of the play. Not much actually “happens” in a Chekhov play. In fact, the pattern is pretty standard–characters who know each other assemble in the first act, reveal themselves through casual conversation, and generate some sort of emotional crisis. Then, contrary to conventional dramatic form, the climax is followed by another scene–an anticlimax–in which the group disperses and people slip back into the languor of daily life.

Driver and Haddow follow this pattern pretty closely. Their play takes place in the spring of 1900, four years before Chekhov’s death. Riding high on the success of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov receives the members of the Moscow Art Theatre at his villa in Yalta. He would dread the visit, except that the troupe includes Olga Knipper, the beautiful actress Chekhov hopes will join him at the secluded guest house he has constructed near the beach.

But they are not really the central characters. Like Chekhov’s plays, Yalta is decentralized. The action consists of several subplots involving two or more characters. So Nemirovich-Danchenko, the managing director of the Moscow Art Theatre, sets out to seduce the wife of his partner, Konstantin Stanislavski. Chekhov’s sister Masha declares her love for Ivan Bunin, the poet. The police beat up Maxim Gorky for his revolutionary pronouncements. Chekhov presents the actors with the script for his latest work, The Three Sisters, and they present him with a painting of himself, done from a photograph Chekhov despised. Then all depart, leaving Chekhov to muse about his impending marriage to Knipper. (Chekhov did marry her in 1901.)

This structure may reflect Chekhov’s own work, but these characters are painfully one-dimensional. Their words and their actions are “stagy” and false–exactly what Chekhov worked so hard to avoid. Even the climactic confrontation, when Stanislavski discovers his wife has been unfaithful, is cartoonish.

That may be due, in part, to Larry McCauley, who plays Stanislavski as a caricature of an obnoxious director. From the moment he walks on the stage, he waves his arms and enunciates ferociously, as though playing to the third balcony of a cavernous theater. The point is obvious–Stanislavski is a ridiculous peacock–but McCauley overdoes it.

Still, even though McCauley’s performance defied the rigorous discipline normally imposed by director Arnold Aprill, I was grateful for it. McCauley is a terrific comedian, and by the time he shows up, the audience needs a good laugh. By hamming it up shamelessly, McCauley jolts this moribund play back to life.

Of course, his histrionics also overshadow other fine performances. Robert Bundy as Gorky and Patrick Clear as Bunin give some depth and animation to characters who serve the same function as the funny neighbors on a TV sitcom. Barbara Gaines makes Olga appear both stately, like an actress, and flirtatious, like a woman in love. Annabel Armour makes Masha both hilarious and pathetic when she throws herself at Bunin, thereby approximating the duality that Chekhov tried to achieve in his plays. Lisa Tejero deftly balances the love and the anger of the unfaithful Lilina Stanislavski. And despite his effort, Peter Van Wagner is simply miscast. Nemirovich-Danchenko is supposed to be a suave womanizer, but Van Wagner plays him as a nebbish who has some inexplicable appeal to women.

Chekhov in Yalta is not quite sly enough to be a spoof, and not quite adept enough to be an homage. It falls somewhere in between and just sits there awkwardly like a college sophomore smoking a pipe and using big words in imitation of a much-admired professor.