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Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 10, 2020

Katie Firth, Vinie Burrows, Malik Reed, and J. Paul Nicholas
Photo by Maria Baranova
Turning fusty old literary dramas into compelling theatrical events is a decidedly daunting task, even in the hands of the Mint Theater Company, whose usually well-met mission it is to rescue and breathe new life into long-neglected plays from the past. Unfortunately, the desultory production of Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories, opening today at Theatre Row, is more of an educational curiosity than a successful page-to-stage transfer.

The 90-minute production is made up of adaptations of two Russian short stories. The first of these is by Anton Chekhov. Originally titled "An Artist's Story," it was reshaped in 1919 into a play by actor/playwright Miles Malleson, who renamed it The Artist and created active roles for all of the characters in what had been a first-person narrative.

The source story itself is certainly packed with interesting ideas. At center is a landscape artist (Alexander Sokovikov), who is painting in the garden of a country house. Over the course of his stay, he interacts with the family who lives there: a mother (Katie Firth) and her two daughters, Genya (Anna Lentz) and Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu). Lidia spends most of her time doing charitable work on behalf of the peasantry, while the younger Genya prefers to bury her nose in a book.

Much of the dialog involves debating about the relative merits of the pursuit of art (Lidia thinks it is a waste of time) and the best way to uplift humanity. In the midst of all this, there is also an incipient love story that provides a brief diversion. It does make for an intriguing intellectual exercise, but director Jonathan Bank has not been able to find a way to turn it into something that is dramatically appealing as well. The catch-as-catch-can costumes, simple set design, and static staging do not help matters.

More rewarding is the second play, Michael, likewise adapted by Miles Malleson. This one dates to 1917 and is based on Leo Tolstoy's story "What Men Live By." Unlike the Chekhov piece, this one benefits from a clean, straightforward presentation. It is a basically a folk version of a parable about charity and redemption. Directed by Jane Shaw, it falls easily into a tradition of storytelling, in the manner of a medieval miracle play. In it, a peasant couple (Katie Firth and J. Paul Nicholas) take pity on an indigent stranger (Malik Reed) and bring him into their home, where their kindness is rewarded in unexpected ways.

Chalk up the evening as a partial success for the Mint. If nothing else, Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories offers the opportunity to view these rarely seen works based on stories by two giants of Russian literature. The production is also buoyed by two standout performances. Alexander Sokovikov, who hails from Russia, is quite engaging as the artist in the first play and as a bullying nobleman in the second, in which he delivers some of his lines in his native language. It is likewise a treat to watch nonagenarian actress Vinie Burrows tread the boards in the role of an exuberantly offbeat servant.

Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories
Through March 14, 2020
Mint Theater Company at Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd St New York, NY 10036
Tickets online and current performance schedule: