• Chad Batka
  • Phillipa Soo’s Natasha making a huge mistake with Lucas Steele’s Anatole in Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812

Reduced to its component parts, Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 looks like an experiment in perversity. Here, adapter/composer Dave Malloy seems to have told himself, see if you can make an engaging entertainment out of this: (1) Pull a storyline from Leo Tolstoy’s massive 1869 novel, War and Peace, then (2) retell it in operatic style—but (3) don’t perform it in an opera house or even in a conventional theater. Instead, (4) stage it in a big tent that’s been filled with bistro tables and banquettes around which you’ve crammed people who didn’t necessarily expect to be spending the evening together. (6) See that you locate the tent in Manhattan’s downtown Meatpacking District. (7) Serve dinner.

Epic, operatic, big top, downtown dinner theater: What could possibly go right?

And yet the show succeeds on pretty much every level—including the blood-alcohol level, inasmuch as you can order a carafe of Stolichnaya vodka to make the experience feel more authentically Russian. (Though, as NPR has pointed out, Stoli’s actually made in Latvia).

Less lethal accoutrements of the evening include heavy red, somehow czarist curtains; starburst chandeliers; and a full-length portrait of the man responsible for the “war” in War and Peace, Napoleon Bonaparte. The fellow who seated us wore a big fur hat and an earring. There was old-world-style lump sugar on the table—the kind my grandma used to grip between her teeth while she drank tea. We were served shots of very good borscht.

Malloy eases us in to the Tolstoyan cosmos with amusing sung exposition. A prologue explains that, Russian patronymics being what they are, “everyone’s got nine different names.” The characters are therefore introduced one by one, in a cumulative song—like “The 12 Days of Christmas,” only funnier and way more Brechtian.

The show retells an episode of romantic anguish from the first half of War and Peace. Natasha is a young countess, newly arrived in Moscow and unprepared for its seductions. Although betrothed to Prince Andrey (who figures big in the novel but appears only fitfully here, a kind of living ghost), she falls for the spectacularly decadent, supremely attractive, inconveniently married Anatole. They begin a liaison. Anatole begs Natasha to run away with him, she consents, they’re found out, and disgrace follows.

But the story doesn’t end there. Among the many witnesses to Natasha’s shame is awkward, soulful (that is to say, depressed) Count Pierre Bezukhov, the unhappy husband of Anatole’s sister. Played by the bearish Malloy himself, Pierre emerges as the unlikely key to Natasha’s salvation, while not incidentally saving himself. And the great comet? A lovely celestial grace note.

Malloy’s music is colloquial in style—colloquial American rather than Russian, owing a good deal more to Broadway’s Spring Awakening than to, say, a Cossack dance. Still, strings, an accordion, and the occasional plaintive clarinet lend an old country texture my lump-sugar-biting grandma would’ve appreciated, just as Paloma Young’s costume designs find a comfortable balance between Empire gowns and punk hair.

As directed by Rachel Chavkin, the cast have their duels, dances, and paroxysms of one kind or another while negotiating the narrow paths among tables. Occasionally they take a seat at one or bring an audience member, briefly, into the action. Don’t ask me why, but this is considered delightful. More mysteriously still, it is delightful. When I was a teenager I skipped prom and went with a bunch of friends to a Chicago restaurant called Riccardo’s that was famous for lots of things, but particularly for attracting the better class of artiste. Sure enough, some opera singers were eating there after a performance; they got up and gave us all a few minutes of casual astonishment. It’s one of my favorite memories, and it’s kept that status all this time at least in part because there’s something singular about standing so close to the radiant, slightly sweaty source of virtuosity.

Meanwhile, my wife and I got acquainted with our tablemates. One of them, an art dealer, was pleasant enough in person but became absolutely fascinating in retrospect, once we’d had the chance to google him.

The bad news is that Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 closes out its current run on Labor Day. We’re on the threshold of its final weekend. But a publicist for the show says, “Possible venues for future engagements are currently being explored.” I’ve told you all this so that you’ll pay attention next time the comet comes around.