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A most miserable man

Trinity's 'Ivanov' is a dour "comedy"
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 10, 2014

0912_Ivanov_top.jpg 
A SHADOW Thorne. [Photo by Mark Turek]

There is a good reason that Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov isn’t staged often. The early play by the masterful Russian short story writer isn’t one of his strongest.

Nevertheless, in a new translation by artistic director Curt Columbus, Trinity Repertory Company is bravely opening its season with it (through October 5), in an especially energetic production, directed by Brian McEleney.

Both fortunately and oddly, it’s a comedy. Fortunately, for the obvious reason of keeping us entertained and distracted from the play’s weaknesses, and oddly because the namesake is as extremely unfunny as a character can be without kicking puppies.

Despite all the skill and heart-wrenching that Stephen Thorne brings to enlivening Nikolai Ivanov, and despite the character having been described as the Russian Hamlet, he is an empty suit, a one-note, self-described whiner.

Although the prescient existential anomie of the man could have made modern audiences identify with him, Ivanov is incessantly belaboring his one complaint: a happy, productive person a year before, he now finds himself bereft of hope and vitality, a state that baffles him since his hovering black cloud popped up out of the blue. He’d been madly in love with his wife Anna, but after five years that passion has evaporated. “The flowers come back every spring,” Anna observes. “Can’t happiness ever come back?” No such luck.

And he’s broke, having neglected his estate, not able to pay a workman until the next rents come in. He married a Jewish wife, and everyone thinks that he did so because her parents were rich, not expecting that they would disown her for converting. His doctor and seeming friend, Yevgeny (Richard Williams), accuses him of “soulless egotism,” although he has the character flaw of preening self-righteousness, unfailingly citing his virtue when those around him prove less saintly. (We know who eventually turns hypocrite, don’t we?) Ivanov’s social circle is equally dispirited, though not despondent: someone observes how bored they are more frequently than kids in the backseat on a long trip.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? Really. The opening ensemble entrance and many of the musical interludes burst with festivity. Ivanov’s estate manager, Misha (Joe Wilson, Jr.), is a joyful sort from the first scene, and the life of a later dull party from the moment he enters. He’s also above-and-beyond loyal to his boss, offering to marry an ugly local rich widow and split the dowry. That widow is Martha Babakina, and Angela Brazil is unrecognizably horsey with a buck-teeth rig — and very funny, playing her like a giddy schoolgirl whenever Ivanov’s fun-loving uncle, Count Matvey Shabelsky (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), jokingly flirts with her.

One of the people that Ivanov owes money to is Zinaida Lebedev (Anne Scurria), who is such a cheapskate that at a get-together she’s holding she grabs up all the vodka bottles as soon as guests leave the room for a minute. She is the wealthy wife of an influential man in the community, Pasha (Timothy Crowe), the president of the county council. Crowe has a delightfully anguished and embarrassed scene when at the insistence of his wife he has to beg Ivanov to start repaying her.

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