According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Sneeze

The Sneeze is one Geshundheit of a comedy, a crowd-pleasing collection of early Chekhov comedies set (and staged) in a bar. You will laugh, thanks no doubt to the excellent direction and joyously deft acting. Bless you, it's a show worth seeing!


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, what happens when you replace the spoonful with two glasses, and the sugar with liquor? Not that The Sneeze, a translation of Anton Chekhov’s early comic work by the talented Michael Frayn, is medicine—it’s more like ambrosia or manna, palatable as it is. Presented as part of Phoenix Theater Ensemble’s Play in a Pub series, The Sneeze is an intimate, lively bit of comedy. The theme connecting its six short scenes is a little unsteady—a wandering Russian trio walks into a bar (insert joke here)—and it isn’t served by the intermission (the break is more social than theatrical), but hey, have a drink. Stay a while.

A bar’s certainly the right place to stage The Sneeze: the use of Lillian Rhiger’s period costumes fits the cozy Ace of Clubs, and Jeffrey E. Salzberg’s lighting focuses tightly on our rowdy heroes. Director John Giampetro could have used the audience more—the action stays to one side of the room—but he compensates by using the entire bar. Characters run in and out of the two entrances, walk down imaginary steps behind the counter, aim their asides at the closest audience member, and even use the house microphone. The cast, seemingly trained in both classics and comedies, contorts, cavorts, and twitches—whatever it takes—to get the jokes across. At the same time, they stay true to Chekhov’s natural melodrama, assisted by Frayn’s delightfully rhythmic translation, and Giampetro’s sense for dramatic build.

The only flaw with The Sneeze is that Chekhov’s style involves repetition, and no matter how many drop-of-a-dime shifts the actors make, some scenes (like “The Proposal”) start to feel like skits. On the other side of that coin, the monologue “The Evils of Tobacco,” is only effective because of the prolonged repression of Nyukhin (tellingly described in the program as “his wife’s husband”), expertly played here by a faintly rebellious Jason O’Connell. The same goes for “The Bear”: without the extreme distortion built up by Dan Matisa and Laura Piquado, the creditor would never be able to fall for the widower.

These early comedies are much like those of MoliĆ©re: they poke fun at social circumstance and exaggerate innocent characters to do so. “The Sneeze” is a pantomime of bureaucracy’s obsequious nature. “The Alien Corn” is a thin excuse to make fun of the French (and Russians, in turn) that’s kept afloat by a boisterous performance from Matisa. And “Drama” is Chekhov turning his gaze back unto us, the audience that thinks it’s easy to be an artist. What could be better at a bar than a harmless series of hundred-year-old jokes at no-one’s expense?

The Sneeze is a spot-on performance, straight down to asides and tactic shifts so crisp that you can see them snap, crackle, and pop right in the actor’s eyes. Just add beer and you’ve got one heck of an infectious evening.

Ace of Clubs (9 Great Jones Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $35.00 (w/two free drinks)
Tuesday @ 7; Saturday @ 3; Sunday @ 3 & 7 [CLOSES 11/14]

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