Frank Anderson and Jonna McElrath in
Conversations on Russian Literature
(© Kyle Ancowitz)
Frank Anderson and Jonna McElrath in
Conversations on Russian Literature
(© Kyle Ancowitz)
David Johnston's Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays, now playing the Access Theater under the aegis of Blue Coyote Theater Group, includes four works of varying quality. But it's the intelligently written and superbly performed one-act play that gives the evening its name that makes the trip worthwhile. As per its deceptively simple title, the two characters who inhabit that play spend a good deal of time discussing writers such as Chekhov, Turgenyev, and Bulgakov. However, the work ultimately packs the punch of a political thriller while slowly unearthing the wounded humanity of its characters.

Set on a park bench in Russia, the play commences mid-conversation as American diplomat Helena (Jonna McElrath) talks with a Russian general identified in the program as simply "Officer" (Frank Anderson). The literary works that they're both so fond of serves as both an icebreaker that allows them to get to the serious business that they've come to discuss, and a means for them to ease their way into talking about more personal subject matter.

Under Gary Shrader's crisply nuanced direction, the two actors play a game of cat and mouse, with the power dynamics constantly shifting. At times, their banter is flirtatious, other moments are filled with anger and tension, and still other instances allow the characters to become vulnerable, even with the knowledge that what they disclose may be used against them. McElrath is exquisite, navigating the twists and turns of the plot with ease while also playing up the comic moments for all their worth. Anderson had a couple of minor line flubs the night I saw the performance, but endows his character with a depth and sincerity that makes his actions believable.

The work is preceded by three shorter pieces. The curtain raiser, Play Russia, is a silly spoof on Chekhov that would be funnier if director Kyle Ancowitz was able to get more out of his three-person cast -- particularly actress Laura Desmond, whose attempts at an exaggerated acting style come across as too forced and cringe-worthy. The second piece, For Those of Us Who Have Lived in France, also directed by Ancowitz, is a puzzling trio of interlocking monologues delivered by Mary, Queen of Scots (Jane Titus), Henry Kissinger (David Lapkin), and housewife Lunelle Snead (Amanda Ronconi). While Lapkin does a particularly funny turn as Kissinger, the piece does not amount to much.

Far better is Mothra Is Waiting, a whimsical oddity directed by Stephen Speights. Sisters Dot (Katherine Puma) and Betty (Tracey Gilbert) have been performing the same night club act for 15 years, with Betty actually believing that they are princesses awaiting the return of Mothra, the monster of B-movie horror fame. Gilbert turns in a hilarious performance as the enraged Betty, who can't believe that nightclub owner Stu (Lapkin again) wants them to change their act.