Craig Bachmann and Austin Pendletonin Chekhov's Rifle(Photo © Nick Andrews)
Craig Bachmann and Austin Pendleton
in Chekhov's Rifle
(Photo © Nick Andrews)
The veteran character actor Austin Pendleton played Uncle Vanya in one of his many Steppenwolf assignments. Well, why wouldn't he have donned those shabby Russian vestments? Not tall and not short, thin as a wire hanger, often suggesting the sleepy Dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea party, Pendleton was born to take on the role of Anton Chekhov's compulsively self-effacing country-estate malcontent. So it makes sense that he'd welcome the chance at a corollary part in Chekhov's Rifle, Alex Ladd's dark comedy in which a rifle is hung upstage center on Michele Spadaro's representation of a not very affluent apartment on the Upper West Side.

Playing a perhaps unappreciated, perhaps simply lousy playwright called Harry Trollope, Pendleton gets to explain that it was a letter wherein Chekhov declared that a rifle brought on stage in the first act must be fired in the last. Of course, Harry's exclamation signals that this piece's obtrusive weapon will go off before the final fade-out. (The audience already knows this anyway, since a sign posted by the door to the auditorium says as much.)

The first words Pendleton speaks as the intelligent but bitter Harry are "Who's there?" Shakespeare enthusiasts will immediately know that this is the first line spoken in Hamlet. (Surprisingly, Pendleton has played the famous Dane, too.) Here, Harry demands "Who's there?" repeatedly and eventually identifies the Hamlet allusion. In time, Harry's temporary roommate, a barely literate actor named Tim Hunter (Craig Bachmann), also takes to asking "Who's there?" with quasi-comic trepidation.

Playwright Ladd, having borrowed from both the Bard and the Russian doctor-dramatist, also parades his familiarity with the great writers by bringing Fyodor Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment into the mix. He does this by having the intensifying conflict between Harry and Tim develop into a situation that requires the introduction of a New York detective who announces himself as Tony Petrovich (Jess Osuna). Yes, Virginia, Petrovich is the surname of the man pursuing Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov for the axe murder of his landlady. Ladd's Petrovich is much more of a Columbo type -- a minor classics figure, let's say.

With all Ladd's bows and nods and doffing of his figurative feathered cap to the Harvard Classics, it seems to have been his intention to construct a play of great import -- something lasting about literature, literacy, and the wages of illiteracy. He's certainly intent on flashing his credentials as a reader with unusual powers of retention. But, for all of its fancy frills and fillips, Chekhov's Rifle is an intermittently amusing sitcom-drama with a central situation that would strain the credulity of television's most blasé scribblers.

As the play gets underway, a script of Harry's is being produced. Tim is appearing in it and has received at least one good notice; Harry, on the other hand, has been lambasted for a work that is apparently typical of the stack of scripts on his desk, none of which has seen the light of theater. Just before the action begins, Harry, who turns out his work on an ancient manual typewriter, has feverishly completed a movie script called -- what else? -- Chekhov's Rifle. He thinks it's commercial drivel and has tossed it in his wastebasket. Tim, angry that Harry has ruthlessly critiqued a screenplay Tim himself has attempted and named The Thor Avengers, plucks Harry's opus from the circular filing cabinet. Then he puts his name on the title page and sends it to his agent, Sal Marino.

In no time, Sal (George Morafetis) decides that the work is fodder for Steven Spielberg and holds out great expectations (yet another of Ladd's allusions?) to Tim. That's a good thing, since the hulking fellow is in heavy credit card debt to his estranged wife Meg (Bridget Flanery), yet he would rather bring bimbos into his routine (Veronica Bero plays the one included here) than get a secure job. With Sal taking more time than hoped unloading Chekhov's Rifle, Tim lands himself further in debt, further out of Meg's kindlier graces, and deeper into a bind.

Craig Bachmann and Austin Pendleton in Chekhov's Rifle(Photo © Nick Andrews)
Craig Bachmann and Austin Pendleton in Chekhov's Rifle
(Photo © Nick Andrews)
Despite its genuinely cute aspects, Chekhov's Rifle simply doesn't wash. The Harry Trollope-Tim Hunter alliance is unlikely from the outset, and Tim's convincing anyone that he could have written Harry's script is another strain on an audience's good faith. That Tim happens to overhear Harry make a triggering -- no pun intended -- remark and then acts impulsively upon it is a breach of Playwriting 101 rules. Getting Harry out of the way while Tim affixes his name to that suspicious script is a further breach. And when Ladd trots out New Yorker drama critic Lizbeth Sanders (Dawn McGee) to interview and then fling herself at the blithering Harry, all believability disappears as speedily as a deleted computer file.

So this is where Austin Pendleton comes in. Once again, he's a delight to watch as he shlumpfs around in the shapeless pajamas and robe that costume designer Wade Laboissonniere has handed him. Whether sputtering out angry deprecations of Tim or turning up the corners of his mouth while simultaneously disdaining the loose women in Tim's wake and hungering after them, Pendleton demands constant attention. Harry isn't an appealing man -- Ladd is disinclined to delineate his merits as a writer -- but Pendleton nonetheless makes him magnetic. Craig Bachmann has a more difficult time: Good-looking and imposing as he is in a Gore-Tex ad kind of way, he has to play an actor dumber than any thesp garnering raves would likely be. Lying consistently to his wife and committing worse deeds, Tim would put an unfair burden on anyone impersonating him.

The remainder of the cast does what can be done under Nolan Haims's adequate direction. Jess Osuna, tallish and somewhat pudgy, makes the strongest impression since he's doing Columbo-like duties and Columbo is such an instant favorite with crowds. (FYI: Petrovich doesn't wear a raincoat.) George Morafetis has all the chutzpah and the vaguely shady bearing of a second-rate agent. Dawn McGee does a fine job as the smart but obtuse Lizbeth Sanders, while Bridget Flanery similarly finds nuance in the wronged and vengeful Meg. And the lanky, helmet-haired Veronica Bero, who's asked to parade naked across the set more than once, retains dignity and poise. Of those working behind the scenes, lighting designers Daniel Ordower and Carrie Wood and sound designer Mark Corbin acquit themselves well. Shanan Estreicher has supplied some spirited music to cover the scene changes.

"I dreamed I was acting in this mediocre play," Pendleton as Harry reports to his shrink over the phone. Life has imitated art here: Chekhov's Rifle does go off but, more often than not, it's firing blanks.