Checkov, Modernized & Naturalized

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    The Group Theater itself began rehearsals in 1939 for a version of Three Sisters with Americanized dialogue by Clifford Odets, abandoning it before opening as a result of a feud between Stella Adler and Morris Carnovsky over what constituted "truthful" acting. Numerous later American playwrights, such as Lanford Wilson and David Mamet, have laid claim to Chekhov by publishing adaptations of his plays in their own idioms, usually working from "literal translations" done by others. And in 1994, Louis Malle and Andre Gregory's extraordinary film Vanya on 42nd Street (based on a four-year workshop exploration of Uncle Vanya that never opened to the public) was greeted as a paean to the sort of idyllic, open-ended searching that American theater artists dream of but rarely experience.

    Consciously or not, Jeff Cohen belongs to this tradition of "naturalized" Chekhov. His The Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990s, first performed in 1990 and occasionally revived and updated with different casts, was a startlingly sensitive and mostly successful attempt to rethink Chekhov's turn-of-the-century Russian characters as recognizable modern Americans?its atrocious title notwithstanding. Cohen made Treplev into an angry and cynical performance artist, Arkadina into a has-been actress who bragged of performing at the Clinton inauguration and of reading Shakespeare to Chelsea. And rather than being cloying and annoying as one might expect, these choices were mostly apt, at times inspired, opening up many subtleties in Chekhov that time and changing social conventions had obscured. The Seagull still had some unsolved logical problems when I saw it in 1997, as does Uncle Jack, Cohen's new version of Uncle Vanya set in present-day rural West Virginia, but the wonder in both cases is just how much does work.

    The new American Vanya is Jonathon "Jack" Vaughn (Gerald Anthony), the son of a deceased U.S. senator and who was once an aspiring writer and who has wasted away his life on the family farm. He lives there with his earnest and unassuming niece Sophie (Keira Naughton), who helps him manage the place, having sacrificed all ambition herself beyond attending the local community college; his elderly mother Elizabeth (Betty Low), a fan of Hillary Clinton and (Jack says) the state's only regular reader of The Nation; and Waffles (Paul Whitthorne), a pock-faced hillbilly descended from the owners of the land before the Vaughns, who considers himself part of the family. The regular routine of this group is upset by the arrival of Professor Alexander Kaufmann (Ronald Guttman), Sophie's father, and his beautiful young wife Helena (Francesca Faridany), who come to live on the estate after Alexander's retirement as chair of the Columbia University art history department.

    Alexander's plans are to relax and write his magnum opus on 20th-century art "away from the homeless and the stench, here in God's country," but his health is uncertain, and before the play begins Helena has sent for a doctor. The physician who arrives is Michael Ashe (Bernard K. Addison)?a black family friend who came to Appalachia straight from medical school years ago to serve the poor and now medicates himself with booze, reefer and the ersatz mother-love of Mary, the Vaughns' old black housekeeper (Leila Danette).

    Complex and forced as all this may seem, it amounts to a well thought-out backstory, which most of the actors in Cohen's modest but strong production use to fine advantage. Addison, for instance, plays a fascinating and deeply troubling puzzle of a doctor, whose extreme states of indolence and passionate animation look very much alike. His basic emotional confusion is especially disturbing during the midnight snack he shares with Sophie in Act II (by far the best section); he flirts overtly then with a young woman who obviously loves him, then succeeds in denying to himself that he has done so even before the scene is over.

    Faridany's Helena is equally effective as the opposite sort of damned soul, spiritually drowning in her own lazy self-possession; with her droll English accent, tight designer clothes and droopy-eyed, flat-mouthed expressions, she suggests quiet destruction out of boredom even when her words sound utterly sincere. Generally speaking, the moments of greatest clarity and discovery in Cohen's Chekhov work (for those who know the original plays) are those in which the greater sexual freedom his characters enjoy suggests nuances of motivation and behavior that Chekhov had to leave vague. He manages to invest these new worlds with warm life in a way that anticipates and neutralizes charges of contrivance.

    The really inspired creation here, however, is Jack, whom Anthony plays as an ordinary nebbish capable of stunning bursts of sudden acuity and disciplined rage. More than anywhere else in the adaptation, the modern details of this character provide an indispensable context of complexity, establishing a blatant self-contradictoriness that prevents Jack from seeming straightforwardly pathetic, as often happens with Vanya. When he runs off at the mouth about his newfound loathing for Alexander, for instance?whom he once worshipped but now considers a fraud?his judgment immediately reflects back on him, because we know that the slick Alexander does have a certain tenured-eccentric appeal and that Jack ought to have been smart enough to see through his false praise in notes telling him he "wrote like Cheever" or "like Mailer." In one particularly telling moment, Jack is supposedly indignant that Alexander would try to "bilk" the unsophisticated Waffles out of his share of the estate, but he nevertheless shouts at Waffles, "SHUT UP FOR CHRISSAKES!"

    Problems remain, and some are significant. Act I, for instance, is marred by an unfortunate peroration by Dr. Ashe, who is seized suddenly and implausibly by an urge to explain at length that his 1960s idealism has been channeled into environmental activism on behalf of the local forests endangered by strip-mining. This sets up a wholly unmotivated confrontation with Helena after she yawns at the speech, which makes nonsense of their first meeting. Making Ashe an environmentalist is fine, but his speechmaking must be pithier and pushed back into the later acts, as in Chekhov; otherwise he seems like a fool. Also, the emotional build of the play's ending is needlessly interrupted here by an undramatic snapshot and a blackout before the final scene; this and the equally anticlimactic Act II curtain are big letdowns. On smaller matters: it would help a great deal if the professor were played by an actor who looked old enough to be actually impotent and dying; also, British-accented Helena's disclosure that she was born in Long Island amounts to an irritating nonsequitur.

    All these problems are solvable, even the major ones, and I very much hope that Cohen chooses to fix them, for the sake of his own remarkable insights into Chekhov's literal immediacy.

    The Tribeca Playhouse, 111 Reade St. (W. B'way), 532-8887

    Lola Montez In Bavaria by John Jahnke Lola Montez, the self-styled Spanish noblewoman, dancer and courtesan who became infamous in the 19th century as a scandalously independent, ambitious and influential female and a living fillip to the conservative strictures of her time, was a subject ready-made for postmodernism. She had little respect for mundane accuracy and fictionalized her past whenever possible, leaving her many biographers clutching at straws in trying to nail down the facts of her colorful life. There have been many fictional works about her?plays, novels, ballets, musicals, operettas and films?but John Jahnke's Lola Montez in Bavaria is the first I know of to place her at the center of an historically deconstructed action whose point is kept deliberately diffuse. Jahnke's Lola?played by Christina Campanella as a stern, mostly black-clad scold who keeps referring to her carefree spontaneous creativity but never really exudes it?is depicted in 1848 when she was the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and effectively the country's uncrowned queen. (In real life, Ludwig's infatuation with her cost him his throne.) With Ludwig played amusingly by Tony Torn as a Vanya-like nebbish, Lola is placed at the center of a fantastic action involving two satyrs (one of whom later transforms into Richard Wagner), a veiled Lola-double-cum-handmaid played by a man, and a birthday party for three-year-old Ludwig II (Ludwig I's grandson, played by an adult actor as an infantile prig with a homoerotic lech for Wagner). Lola makes a narrow escape in the end, having danced her famous "spider dance" and sung an aria from Tannhauser with surprising fullness and exuberance.

    There is great potential in some of these collisions, juxtapositions and moments of historical silliness, but realizing it required a surer political and comic sensibility than Jahnke displays. The show seems sometimes wholly hermetic, like the reflection of a private joke, and other times ingratiating, embarrassing itself with crudely literal explanations, such as: "It is ridiculous that the confidante to the King is forbidden to perform in public," and "I am being rejected by the lovely trees that will not offer me sanctuary... Ah well, who pities the whore." Allowing Lola Montez's spirit of impetuousness and wild imagination to take over more might have kept this piece from becoming so Germanically overdetermined.

    HERE, 145 6th Ave. (betw. Spring & Broome Sts.), 647-0202 (closed)