Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Random House's Unabridged Dictionary defines poetry as "the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts." Cherubina's Nikolai (Teddy Bergman) claims that he measures poetry by its ability to unsheathe soulfulness and pain. So when his schoolteacher friend Elisa Ivanovna (Amanda Fulks) sends him a poem to publish that he doesn't think embodies these qualities, he rejects it despite realizing with his partner Max (Jimmy Owens) that it's not half-bad. Although Elisa feels the sting of rejection, she doesn't go down for the count. She believes that her poetry is good, and was only rejected because she is crippled and doesn't have the physical beauty to match the beauty of her writing. With the assistance of Max (as much her friend as Nikolai's), she sets out to prove that a correlation exists between physical beauty and applauded art.
After assuming various accents and personas, Elisa finally becomes Cherubina, a Russian nom de plume with great beauty borrowed from the photograph of a former student. From there, she spins a web of lies that express themselves through letters and phone calls exchanged with Nikolai. At first fueling the fire for sport and then to debunk Nikolai's confidence in recognizing art, Max starts to question Nikolai's rapture with the mysterious Cherubina and his decision to arbitrarily publish her purposefully shoddy poems. The lies soon take on a life of their own when rumors that Elisa did not initiate start to circulate in their society. Soon, there are sightings of the dark-haired Cherubina partaking in cultural events and spending time with counts. Harmless fun and indignation balloon into a situation that becomes ominous for all parties involved.
Set and lighting designer Gina Scherr allows the actors to create some of that danger by bisecting the stage into the office of the literary paper downstage, and a forest scene upstage. A duel that's not entirely serious between Max and Nikolia opens the play and foreshadows the tension that will ultimately be created between them, but not to the drama's detriment. The intensity of the characters is immediately displayed by the wonderful cast, all nailing their roles and showing great chemistry in the often two-character scenes. Fulks and Owens work particularly well together, aligning their devious minds while also showing great intimacy and silent affection for one another. Fulks ambles around on her lame leg with purpose, never letting us forget that her unfortunate accident tints almost all of her decisions. Alexis Poledouris keeps both Cherubina and the true natures of everyone's relationships deliciously mysterious. Although Cohen's wordy dialogue may be a little more revealing than the actors, who loves who and who despises who is cleverly hidden in the performances.
Cohen's script is reminiscent of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, but with its own twists. Set in 1913 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the wooden furniture and phones may be vintage, but aside from Cherubina's sultry Russian accent, the audience doesn't get much of a sense of a distinct Russian setting. We do, however, get a distinct sense of romance by the heavy aroma of perfume wafting into the audience from Cherubina's letters. Love and passion is definitely in the air, even if it's based on lies. And by the time all of the characters are stripped down to the bone, you'll have shared a journey with them that is entertaining, humbling, and moving.
Through February 23rd. Sanford Meisner Theater
164 Eleventh Ave New York, NY 10011 Ticket Price: $18
Ticket Information: TheaterMania: 212-352-3101; http://www.theatermania.com/