The Jewel in the Manuscript
Also see Rob's review of 9 to 5 the Musical
The Jewel in the Manuscript is a new play by Rosemary Zibart, who lives in Santa Fenot strictly "local" but close enough. You can't tell from the title, but the play is about Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the month of October 1866. What's so special about this particular month? It turns outand all of this is factualthat Dostoyevsky, overwhelmed by gambling debts, has agreed to a ridiculously onerous contract, under the terms of which he has to produce a new novel by November first, or else the other party gets all his royalties for the next 7 or so years.
This deal happens in the midst of the monthly serialization of "Crime and Punishment," and Dostoyevsky doesn't even know how he is going to finish that book. But instead of working furiously, he mopes around in a pessimistic slump, accomplishing so little that his friend (possibly his only friend) Milyukov brings in a stenographer to prod Dostoyevsky to get the book finished by the deadline.
The book turns out to be "The Gambler." Whether it was finished on time or notwell, that's half of the plot. The stenographer is Anna Snitkina, who, despite being 25 years younger than Fyodor, became his wife in 1867 andoops, I just gave away the other half of the plot.
The play, then, is both a May-September romance and a depiction of the creative process, as well as a biography of a great writer. Ms. Zibart has artfully constructed it to include all the requisites that any depiction of Dostoyevsky should include. His gambling addiction. His epilepsy, and the brief moments of illumination, the glimpses into the eternal, that immediately precede the seizure and loss of consciousness. The mock execution he underwent in his young social-activist days (he was put in front of a firing squad, expecting to be killed, until at the last second a note arrived from the "merciful" tsar pardoning himthe whole thing was a setup to teach him a lesson). His antipathy toward the modernization and secularization of Western Europe, symbolized by the Crystal Palace in England, and his conviction that salvation lies in the Russian folk, in suffering, and in Jesus Christ.
Finally, there is the controversy over the epilogue of "Crime and Punishment," in which Raskolnikov is sent to a labor camp in Siberia after confessing to the killing of the old pawnbroker and her sister. He is followed there by Sonya, and her love and his suffering eventually brings about Raskolnikov's redemption. Most critics consider it a mistake, not at all in keeping with the rest of the novel. (I, however, think it's a perfect ending.) Ms. Zibart structures her play so that we see how this epilogue came to be written, and the Raskolnikov=Dostoyevsky and Sonya=Anna parallels are fairly clear. (I'm sure that Dostoyevsky fantasized about giving his pawnbroker a few whacks too, and it's a nice touch that there is less stuff in the Dostoyevsky apartment in the second act than in the firstit's gone to pawn.) Fittingly, the last lines of this play are the last lines of "Crime and Punishment."
The only one of these topics that is handled maladroitly is the mock execution story. Dostoyevsky relates it to Anna too early in the play, with no real motivation for telling it to her at that moment. It's so overplayed that it should be in an opera instead of in this play. And the Christ symbolism is heavy-handed: I could take the "prisoner on my right ... prisoner on my left" lines, but the outstretched arms? There is already a large painting of the dead Christ hanging over the set. We don't need the crucifixion acted out again.
Along the same lines, Dostoyevsky, as emoted here by David James, seems to be on one long trudge down the Via Dolorosa. Just about every facial expression by Mr. James is a pained one, and about a third of the time he is on the verge of tears or actually in them. There are times in this play when anguish is appropriate, but Mr. James's portrayal pretty quickly becomes a one-note aria of bathos. Adding to the alienating effect is that he doesn't converse, he orates, and does so in a British accent, whereas all the other "Russians" on stage speak like Americans. (So does Mr. James, off stage.) I don't know if this performance is an acting choice or a directing choice (by Brian Hansen, who otherwise does quite a good job), but the upshot is that I rarely felt that I was watching Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I was watching an actor "doing" Dostoyevsky. (I will give him credit for a realistic seizure, though.)
As for the other actors, Linda Williams as Anna's mother and Jennifer Benoit as the consumptive housekeeper do good work in their small roles. Tyler Alan Strand provides some comic relief as Milyukov. He plays him somewhat effeminately, as if Oscar Wilde had decided to drop by, but it helps to lighten the mood, and his too-brief appearances are quite welcome.
Richard Boehler likewise is entertaining as Dostoyevsky's profligate stepson Pasha. The only problem is that he's in the wrong century. He saunters in and out looking like Jim Morrison in a Cossack costume for Halloween in nineteen sixty-six. But his speech patterns and mannerisms make anachronism fun (probably unintentionally), and he does contribute one trenchant remark about Dostoyevsky being able to love only women who detest him.
The best acting is done by Jessica Quindlen as Anna, and it's almost worth seeing the play just to see this performance. She knows the value of stillness, the effectiveness of not overdoing it. She is always believable, and she looks echt Russian to boot.
The set by Bob Byers and lighting design by Christopher Whitson allow seamless transitions between Dostoyevsky's apartment and Anna's home, and the direction by Mr. Hansen is fluid and for the most part well thought out.
Now it's time for the big question: Should you see this play that no one has ever seen before? If you already know something about Dostoyevsky, I would say yes, and the more you know about him, the more you'll appreciate Ms. Zibart's writing. If you would like to learn more about Dostoyevsky, I'd recommend this as a good starting point. If you couldn't care less about Dostoyevsky, I don't think this is the play for you. Although everybody wants a hit, I'm pretty sure that Rosemary Zibart, Brian Hansen, and the Adobe Theater knew when they decided to mount this play that it would appeal only to a fairly limited audience, and I applaud them for taking a chance on something new instead of tried-and-true.
The Jewel in the Manuscript, a new play by Rosemary Zibart, is being presented at The Adobe Theater in Albuquerque through November 11, 2012. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at adobetheater.org or (505) 898-9222.