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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Tovarich: A Major Rediscovery for the American Theatre


Carly Street and Jon Barker
Tovarich, a once very popular romantic comedy-cum-philosophical melodrama from the 1930s, has fallen into relative obscurity. That it is remembered at all is largely a result of the existence of a 1938 motion picture adaptation (with Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer) and fading memories of a 1963 stage musical version which starred Vivian Leigh and Jean Pierre Aumont. Most happily, the play is now back on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in a scintillating, joyous revival which, if there is any logic in the world of theatre, should embark it on a journey which will re-establish its reputation among theatergoers across the country.

The setting is 1925 Paris where exiled Russian royalty have been given sanctuary. Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna and her consort Prince Mikail Alexandrovitch are living hand to mouth in a fleabag hotel. Tatiana shoplifts comestibles at the grocery (she is proud of the deftness of her thievery) and sells self invented royal titles) to help them get by. Neither would ever appropriate for their own use the $4 billion francs which the late Czar has entrusted to them for delivery to the new Czar after the restoration of the monarchy. The time has come for them to follow the example of fellow royal exiles who have taken plebian jobs (i.e., cab drivers, Cossack dancers).

Pretending to be commoners and armed with letters of recommendation which they have written in their true names, Tatiana and Mikail obtain employment as butler and housemaid in the house of banker Charles Dupont and his wife Fernande. The Duponts' spoiled and snobby adult children, Georges and Helene, both live with their parents. Both Charles and Georges fall head over heels for Tatiana, and Helene flips for Mikail. Tatiana and Mikail take the Dupont scions under their wing, and mold them to become more responsible and sophisticated. All of this is written and played with a deft touch and winning good humor.

Of equal, if not more, central concern to Tovarich is the brutal behavior of the Bolshevik revolutionaries toward members of the deposed royal family, for the Bolsheviks are stalking the royal couple in order to both murder them and regain the money which they feel was stolen from the Russian people. Primary among the Bolsheviks is Commissar Gorotchenko. Gorotchenko treated both Tatiana and Mikail with cruel barbarity when he was in charge of the prison where both had been held before their escape from Russia. Gorotchenko confronts Tatiana and Mikail when he is reunited with them at the Dupont home where he has come to negotiate the sale or lease of Russian oil fields to American, French and Dutch interests. Although the rapprochement and solidarity which the deposed royals and the Commissar ultimately reach is quite fanciful, the internal contradictions with which the Gorotchenko is imbued are complex, fascinating and appallingly believable, and the philosophy and values which both bind to and separate him from Tatiana and Mikail (including now out of fashion notions concerning nationalism) make for sparkling, intellectually stimulating theatre.

The "original" Tovarich was a French play by Jacques Deval which premiered in Paris in 1933. At hand is its 1936 American adaptation written by four time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert E. Sherwood, the distinguished playwright, screenwriter, biographer and critic. Given his oeuvre which includes the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives and his history as an anti-war activist who joined the Roosevelt administration where he served as the director of War Information during the war against Nazi Germany, it is quite likely that Sherwood's adaptation accounts for the unusually large array of political and social ideas which accompany the comedic romance of Tovarich.

Bonnie J. Monte has superbly blended the diverse elements of the play to create a smoothly integrated, satisfying whole. The melodrama is as dramatically compelling as the romantic comedy is delightfully frothy, and the farcical humor is hilariously funny.

Monte has coaxed excellent performances from her large ensemble. Jon Barker is exceptionally amusing as the posturing Prince Mikail without compromising his dashing image. Carly Street is an entrancing Tatiana Her Grand Duchess very nicely captures both Tatiana's elegant and elfin sides. Anthony Cochrane is a convincingly evil Gorotchenko even as we find ourselves compelled to consider the efficacy of his self justifications.

Colin McPhillamy as Chauffourier-Dubieff, the Governor of the Bank of France, and Alison Weller, Matt Sullivan, and Rachel Fox as the Dupont parents and their daughter Helene are lively and entertaining. Seamus Mulcahy in tandem with Jon Barker and fight director Rick Sordelet provide the high point of this production's hilarity as Georges Dupont receives a lesson in humility from Mikail part in parcel with his lesson in swordsmanship. Mary Dierson as a Dutch oil representative positively sparkles in a relatively brief role.

Tovarich (which is the Russian word for Comrade) clocks in at two hours and forty-five minutes, and would benefit from about fifteen minutes of judicious cuts in its overlong, establishing opening scene. It would not be hyperbola to describe the balance of the play as perfection.

Director Bonnie J. Monte has unearthed a rare gem and polished it to a high sheen. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey audiences may be only the first of many to be delighted and enriched by her re-discovery.

(In 1952, Tovarich received a brief 15-performance revival at the New York City Center. In 2012, Russia's Maxim Gorky Drama State Theatre performed Tovarich in Russian on tour in the United States in 2012.)

Tovarich continues performances through September 1 (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday & Sunday (except 8/25) 7:30 PM; Friday & Saturday 8 PM / Matinees: Sat. & Sun. 2 PM at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.

Tovarich by Robert E. Sherwood; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast
Prince Mikail Alexandrovitch……….Jon Barker
Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna..Carly Street
Olga/Mme. Chauffourier-Dubieff…Blythe Coons
Chauffourier-Dubieff………..…Colin McPhillamy
Count Feodor Brekenski…….John Greenbaum
Martelleau/Concierge..………….......Einar Gunn
Fernande Dupont……………………Alison Weller
Charles Dupont………………….......Matt Sullivan
Louise………………………….Christy Richardson
Georges Dupont………...…......Seamus Mulcahy
Mme. Van Hemett……………………Mary Dierson
Helene Dupont…………………………..Rachel Fox
Gorotchenko…………………...Anthony Cochrane


Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey


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- Bob Rendell



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