Learn the Meaning of Life With Three Questions in Chekhov / Tolstoy: Love Stories
The Mint Theater stages Miles Malleson's adaptations of two Russian tales at Theatre Row.
Anton Chekhov is perhaps best known for a handful of influential plays, but he wrote hundreds of short stories too. In 1919, Miles Malleson adapted one of them, "The House With the Mezzanine," into a stage play he called The Artist. The Mint Theater Company has revived that along with Michael, Malleson's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's supernatural fable "What Men Live By," both running in a 90-minute production at Theatre Row titled Chekhov / Tolstoy: Love Stories.
The company has staged exciting productions of other Malleson plays in the past, including Unfaithfully Yours and Conflict, but these two short plays, paired because of their common theme of love, turn the experience of sitting in the theater into an exercise in Chekhovian ennui.
The Artist tells the tale of poor landscape painter Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov), who lives (apparently rent-free) on the estate of the wealthy Bylekurov (J. Paul Nicholas) and has the luxury of doing absolutely nothing for weeks at a time while he waits for inspiration (Oana Botez appropriately dons him in drab gray vest and pants). In his boredom, he wanders to a neighboring estate where he meets two sisters: Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu), a hard-working pragmatic woman who cares for the needy, and the bookish Genya (Anna Lentz). After Lidia challenges Nicov's idealistic notions about the working class, Nicov finds a sympathetic ear in Genya, and he finds himself falling in love with her. Suddenly, life does not seem so bleak to him, but an equally sudden turn of events upends his new happiness.
Director Jonathan Bank directs The Artist at a glacial pace. If his goal was to draw us into Nicov's disaffected world of tedium and self-doubt, he succeeds. But doing so hardly gives Sokovikov and Lentz the room to shine. Malleson is partly to blame for this; apart from Nicov's lengthy diatribe against the medical profession, the dialogue is flaccid and disjointed. Set designer Roger Hanna's backdrop, a large canvas of a tree full of autumn foliage (an example of Nicov's work, perhaps), at least provides a pleasant place for the eyes to wander.
Following The Artist (with no intermission between), the more engaging Michael tells the story of a struggling shoemaker, Simon (Nicholas), who one day brings home a cold, hungry man named Michael (Malik Reed). Simon's wife, Matryona (Katie Firth), is none too keen on bringing a homeless beggar into her kitchen, but Michael doesn't talk much and he proves to be a quick study at making quality shoes. Every once in a while, though, he smiles in a way that disturbs Matryona. It turns out that Michael is a disobedient angel tasked by God to find the answer to three questions: What dwells in man? What is not given to man? What do men live by? After he learns the answers, he smiles with the knowledge that he will soon be able to return to heaven.
Under Jane Shaw's direction, Reed brings a charm to his portrayal of Michael that is augmented by the sagacious gaze of Vinie Burrows, who plays the elderly servant Aniuska. As Reed delivers Michael's speech, Burrows looks on with wise compassion, and we know that his words about loving our fellow human beings ring true to her. Matthew Richards illuminates Michael in a subtly intensifying white light when the final question has been answered, and the effect is moving in its simplicity. Whether reviving these two Malleson plays is worth it is another question.