Seeing a gun hanging on the wall in a play called Chekhov's Rifle is not much of a surprise. In fact, given the celebrated playwright's oft-quoted line about the necessity of seeing a gun on the wall early in the play if it is to be used later on, it's even expected. As it turns out, the rifle in question is demonstrative of the work as a whole: the baldly traditional wed with the unconventional.
Whatever other problems are to be found with Alex Ladd's new play at the Greenwich Street Theatre, a lack of creativity is not an issue. With some thoughtful analysis of the contemporary film and theatre scene, enjoyably daffy literary allusions and spoofs on everything from Dostoevsky to The New Yorker, and even games with time and space, Chekhov's Rifle covers an astonishing amount of ground.
It's difficult to shake the feeling, though, that Ladd included so much to give his otherwise flighty work some real weight. The central story, of a crusading high-minded playwright (Austin Pendleton) battling it out with a young actor (Craig Bachmann) who gets by on his looks and thinks that writers' contributions are minimal, is hardly anything new.
And were it not for Ladd's other additions, which give the characters and the audience an uncanny self-awareness of their roles in the play, there would be little to distinguish Chekhov's Rifle. But with them, the play is a quirky, often involving one, reveling in its higher aspirations while enjoying the games it gets to play with the audience. For example, when the young actor's agent (George Morafetis) is faced with a script - which the young actor stole from his writer roommate - he clearly can't understand, he demands its rewriting to suit the popular audience, with, perhaps, a little nudity thrown in. What better time to have a naked woman run dash across the stage?
It should be pointed out that the woman (Veronica Bero) has every reason to be there at that point in time; Ladd is that smart, at least. He also gets a few choice jokes in at the expense of a vocabulary-building audio tape, which unknowingly narrates the first meeting between the young actor and a detective (Jess Osuna) who visits later on questioning the fate of one of the main characters. That and the visual explanation of yet another Chekhov maxim are the script's most inspired moments.
Chekhov's Rifle could do with a few more, though; it feels like there's quite a bit of filler. Pendleton's character, Harry, says early on that the gun on the wall is there to remind him that there should be nothing wasted in his writing, though Ladd hasn't taken the same lesson to heart here. Director Nolan Haims is on Ladd's side of the issue, not keeping the scene shifts quick and fluid, and too often allowing the pace of the scenes themselves to lag.
Pendleton doesn't help much, often apparently stammering over his lines and taking a fairly long time to get them out. His character comes across as a bit befuddled and disoriented, which works, even though the character's advanced age seems at odds with the script's intentions. Osuna's delivery is similar to Pendleton's, though more understated. Bachmann's work is rather one-note and, like his character, doesn't often dig beneath the surface; neither does Morafetis, but it works better in his case, as the oily agent who can't be bothered to take the time.
The women generally fare better, though it's difficult to judge Bero, who is underused until very late in the show. Dawn McGee is a breath of fresh air as the repressed New York theatre critic, and Bridget Flanery gives the play's best performance as Bachmann's energetically angry ex-girlfriend. When she's around, things go flying - literally and figuratively - and her scenes are so dynamic, they almost make you forget that the rifle hanging on the wall of Michele Spadaro's fine, Upper West Side apartment set hasn't already gone off.
As for that gun, doesn't Chekhov's rule require that it be fired in the play's last act? Some traditions Ladd isn't willing to buck, though the circumstances surrounding that part of the play - as so many others - are far from obvious. Ladd has done so much to set certain parts of Chekhov's Rifle apart that it makes the merely ordinary moments stand out as merely adequate. For a play this ambitious, that's not quite enough, though it's not a bad start.
Lord Strange Troupe