Reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald
Chekhov dismissed his “vaudevilles,” the short comic plays that comprised the bulk of his dramatic output, as “trivial” and “foolish,” “jokes” without substance. It’s easy to give them the same thrift in production—Chekhov, light and fluffy!—but only at their peril. Although the plays satirize people’s tendency to self-dramatize until they become caricatures of themselves, Chekhov’s style is never simply to belittle. As in the later plays, he underscores his criticisms with empathy, and he colors his comedy with loss and failure. The successful realization of the three Chekhov shorts that make up in Love, Flies in the Snuffbox, all directed and translated by Dustin Condren, depends on the actors’ ability to create, not clowns, but real people who behave like clowns. The Proposal, in which two neighbors can’t stop quarrelling long enough to propose marriage, fares the worst: The characters are reduced to a collection of postures and vocal ticks, and the situation becomes mildly silly rather than uproarious and true. The Bear, in which a widow committed to a life of mourning is seduced by a rustic neighbor, holds up slightly better, thanks to Victoria Levin’s ironic righteousness as the widow and the palpable erotic charge found in the final scene. But the highlight of the evening is Rick Delaney’s textured and pathetic performance in On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, about a middle-aged man who turns a “lecture for charity” into a helpless cry from a mediocre, emasculated existence. Delaney stammers and stumbles his way through the monologue, screwing up his face and tightening his suit jacket as though holding back screams or tears…or both. He never quite collapses—this pitiable character can’t even have a decent breakdown—but makes us feel embarrassed to laugh at the downfall of an unimportant man. Delaney’s performance fulfills the dual potential of the vaudevilles—proving that Chekhov’s earlier achievements can hold their own, while simultaneously opening a window to the quietly desperate figures (Medvedenko, Gaev, Sonya) of the later masterpieces.
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