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A Brief History of the Soviet Union

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Ron Bopst and Marissa Parness.
Photo by Alan Winner.

Vladimir Zelevinsky is a playwright who also happens to be a computer scientist. He has been quoted as saying that he uses "art … as a laboratory." He also has been noted for having a "tendency to wax epic" in his writing, as in his 142-character play Manifest Destiny from 2006.

You should keep these two points in mind when attending the Hive Theatre's production of an earlier work dating back to 2000, A Brief History of the Soviet Union, now on view at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre.

To begin with, there's that misleading word "brief" in the title. A Brief History of the Soviet Union runs for a good two-and-a-half hours and does tend to "wax epic," so at intermission some members of the audience were wondering aloud whether the play was over. It does seem that Mr. Zelevinsky is determined to cover all aspects of life in the Soviet Union, from the October Revolution of 1917 to the year 2000, when one of its central characters, at the age of 100, is charged with pulling together all the play's many threads—or, perhaps, strands of yarn, in reference to one of the more effective short scenes that comprise the overall work.

A Brief History of the Soviet Union follows a linear chronology, alerting the audience to the flow of time through the use of era-specific popular music, ranging from Al Jolson to the Andrews Sisters to Frank Sinatra to the Beatles. Each of the scenes is a self-contained moment of Soviet history, and, true to their Russian roots, they run the gamut from wildly comical to depressingly sad to intellectually ironic.

Here is where the "laboratory" part comes in. Mr. Zelevinsky has tinkered with A Brief History of the Soviet Union before. It was revised in 2003, and one wonders if another revision might be in the offing. That's because some of the scenes are beautifully constructed, like lovely little pieces in a collection of thematically-connected short stories, while others feel like drafts of work-in-progress.

The best of the comic/ironic pieces include an encounter over beers by two KGB agents, each of whom is spying on the other, and the "reunion" of two comrades who loathe one another yet are forced to share a communal apartment. These are tightly written and played with exquisite timing by Ron Bopst and Guy Rader (well directed by Jacques Stewart). The best of the emotionally touching pieces are performed by Marissa Parness, as a woman whose memories of Soviet life cover the entire time span of the play. Her opening story about her experiences during the October Revolution, and a later one about that skein of yarn, are particularly effective.

Because the tone of the play keeps shifting from scene to scene, the actors have their work cut out for them, and at the performance I attended, there was still a bit of reaching for lines from time to time. A larger cast (the fourth member is Henry Dwyer, who is making his New York debut) might help the pacing through the scene shifts. But, really, the play could stand for some paring down so that it could better live up to its title. For instance, a scene touching on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan falls flat, and the play could do without a bit of silliness about "bachelor Arctic seal penises."

Hive Theatre is a relative newcomer to the Off Off Broadway scene. Founded in 2010, its mission is to focus on "underexposed, original works," with an emphasis on "experimentation." How fitting it is, then, for the company to take on this play by someone who considers his work to be a "laboratory." If A Brief History of the Soviet Union is not entirely successful, the potential is great for both the play (please consider revising, Mr. Zelevinsky) and for the troupe. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

A Brief History of the Soviet Union
Through February 1
Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 1st Floor
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