Chris Mixon and Rachel Botchan
in The Sneeze
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Chris Mixon and Rachel Botchan
in The Sneeze
(© Gregory Costanzo)
An octet of brief pieces by Anton Chekhov -- both his short plays and dramatized versions of his short stories -- comprise Michael Frayn's The Sneeze, now being presented by The Pearl Theatre Company at City Center Stage II. The works, like the playwright's longer ones, blend comedy with the sad realities of everyday life, but J.R. Sullivan's heavy-handed production emphasizes only the former, with a host of broad, caricatured performances that result in a mostly unfunny evening of theatergoing.

The proceedings get off to a fairly promising start with Drama, a short work about a famous writer (Chris Mixon) who's visited by a woman (Rachel Botchan) with literary pretentions. She insists on reading her five-act epic to him, and as she does, he cringes, dozes and contemplates the ways in which he might escape. Mixon, who has a face seemingly made of rubber and a deftness for physical comedy that serves him well throughout the production, amuses as Botchan sweeps comically and melodramatically around the stage.

Little that follows, though, manages to match this theatrical amuse bouche. Bradford Cover and Dominic Cuskern as a landowner and French tutor who's taught the man's children, merely shout their way through The Alien Corn, in which Chekhov indicts bigoted nationalist pride as the landowner torments his employee.

In the piece that gives the play its title, a minor government official (Mixon) annoys one of his superiors (Cover) while both attend the theater. It begins with an untoward sneeze from the former and quickly escalates to all-out harassment. Unfortunately, the performances in the wordless sequence are so unspecific that theatergoers will find it difficult to understand why the altercation, which also includes the men's wives (played by Botchan and Lee Stark), escalates as it does.

Just before intermission, Stark and Cover do bring humorously antagonistic chemistry to The Bear, which centers on a man claiming payment on a loan from a widow. Ironically, it's her refusal to grant his request and her staunch defense of her late husband (which includes a challenge to a duel) that inspires romance.

The second half of the play consists of the ubiquitous monologue The Evils of Tobacco (performed with abandon, and an ever increasing amount of tics, by Mixon), before a pair of two character sequences, along with the famed farce The Proposal. While Mixon, Botchan and Cuskern flail about to increasingly annoying effect in the latter piece about a man's ill-fated attempt at requesting a woman's hand in marriage, the two-handers feature a welcomely muted and occasionally touching turn from Robert Hook as an aging actor, and provide Cuskern with the opportunity to demonstrate his deftness at subtly wry comedy.

Scenic designer Jo Winiarski frames the action with a gilded and stylized proscenium that backs a planked thrust stage replete with footlights. Some of the boards on the floor curl up as if from age and the once-verdant backdrop behind the proscenium shows signs of distress. There are moments that it's impossible to not wonder if the deterioration of the space comes not from the passage of time, but rather from the actors' proverbial chewing of the scenery.