The play, about the womanizing Michael Platonov (Eric Dean Scott), was never titled by Chekhov, but the revealing title of a production in the 1950s was Don Juan in a Russian Manner. (Michael Frayn's adaptation, Wild Honey, briefly played on Broadway.) In this liberally adapted work, 11 people arrive at a bash -- at whose estate and for what reason is anybody's guess. The opening line, "This party sucks," sets the tone for most of the first act, followed by self-referential statements such as "I'm acting, but not in this." A character named Isaac (Dan Liston) enters sporting a yarmulke and a T-shirt that reads "Everybody Loves a Jewish Boy," then declares that the room is "as hot as Palestine." While all of this is going on, the opening chord progression of "Tainted Love" (Get it?) plays trance-like in the background.
Much of the audience will already have made up its mind about the production within the first five minutes, but such quick judgment would be a mistake for both purists and avant-gardists. To his credit, director-adaptor Jay Scheib embraces a style that makes it almost impossible to fall into period clichés. The constant reminders of the show's theatricality can be seen as a radical brand of naturalism that recognizes realism itself as an artifice. And for every expletive or anachronism thrown into the script, most of the poetry of the original remains intact. Scheib and company understand Chekhov's preoccupation with the decadent upper class, and this play treats that topic more bluntly than his more famous works. The near-orgy that develops onstage toward the end of the first act -- with the cast members swilling vodka, dancing, and groping each other -- is at least in the spirit of Chekhov.
In its own way, the show is an appropriate addition to the Chekhov Now Festival, within which it is being presented. Still, it's often cold, clouded, and tedious. Sergey Voynitzev (Gaëton Bonhomme), who is cuckolded by the main character, might have been presented as a prototype of Uncle Vanya's Telegrin, the Chekhovian fool; instead, he's a drunken party animal who repeatedly catapults himself onto the couch. Mary Grekhov (Olga Victorovna Fedorischevna) could perhaps be seen as a precursor to Nina in The Seagull, who falls in love with the middle-aged Trigorin, but she's ridiculed as a naïf in a goth schoolgirl uniform who shacks up with older men. Osip (Tao Wang), the outsider and horse thief, is played with so much self-conscious villainy that a belated attempt to humanize him is anti-climactic. One by one, these characters are deconstructed out of their humanity, so it's no surprise that the second act feels leaden.