Pity poor Semyón Semyónovich (Lucas Beck). He lives in a glorious worker’s republic, and yet he has no job! His most recent scheme – to win untold riches, and to thus be able to drink all the eggnog he wants, by becoming a world-class tuba player – has fallen apart. In deepest despair, he acquries a gun and contemplates bringing it all to an end. And then his troubles begin.
Aristarkh (David Winkler) is a member of the Russian intelligentsia. Like all such, he is in deep dismay over the way that the Bolshies have discarded and disregarded the intelligentsia after the Revolution. He would commit suicide himself, by way of protest, but it would interrupt his important work. Would Semyón, who was going commit suicide anyway, be so kind as to alter his suicide note so that it appears that he is committing suicide on behalf of the intelligentsia? Aaristakh is soon followed by lobbyists for art (Peter Van Valkenburgh), commerce (Michael Mandell), religion (Jan Forbes), and by two Mata Haris who wish Semyón to die for them, and definitely not for each other (Kateri Chambers and Elif Uncu). Soon Simyón has the world’s first suicide note with earmarks.
Why is it that this gem of a play has been so seldom performed? Do we imagine that Erdman, writing in the depression-era Soviet Union, had nothing to say to us, living in the prosperity of America? Think again, as you’re learning to play the tuba.
That a brand-spanking new Washington-area theater company would inaugurate itself with this wonderful, hilarious, completely unknown Russian play, and would do it as well as 1st Stage has done, is bracing, profoundly satisfying news for those who love theatre. From the moment you gaze on Nathaniel Krause’s marvelous set – he has constructed a cramped Moscow apartment, with Social Realism paintings of Lenin, the hammer and sickle, and a Heroic Worker who looks suspiciously like Semyón’s mother-in-law (Susan Holliday) – you know you are in the presence of a first-rate production, done by serious artists (Bob Krause does the scenic art.) The performances do not disappoint.
Beck radiates Simyón’s dim earnestness, and shows plainly the cauldron of emotions and ego which Simyón must demonstrate in order to make his character, and thus the show, work. The moment that Simyón realizes that he has been flattered into giving up his life is pure gold, and a scene in which he tries to explain what happened to a wandering beggar (the marvelous Stephen Lopez) will make you wheeze with laughter. As Simyón’s wife Masha, Juliet Broder is convincingly sweet and sensible; we are aware, as Simyón is not, of the treasure he is ignoring in his despair over his busted tuba-playing career. Holiday does fine work as well. A scene in which she is tasked with holding Simyón’s attention is riveting, in the sense a developing train wreck is riveting. She tells the worst stories imaginable, with all the enthusiasm of someone being thrown off a cliff.
The supporting roles are also well done. Jon Jon Johnson excels as a greasy, greedy neighbor who has sold naming rights to Simyón’s suicide note. I also liked Daniel Chestnut as a postman with the soul of a policeman, who looks at everything from a Marxist point of view – particularly women, as it will quell his lust. And fabulous above all is Winkler as the oleaginous Aristarkh, the first and most ardent of Simyón’s suicide suitors. Winkler delivers his lines as if they are inspired riffs of improvisational jazz, coming from a mighty library of ego, selfishness, and self-regard. He makes his character so breathtakingly audacious that the audience broke out into spontaneous applause when he finished his first scene.
It is not immediately apparent why this play would have inspired Joe Stalin to exile Erdman to Siberia. Its principal target was the intelligentsia, who Stalin despised, and commerce and religion were represented by a drunk and a lecher, respectively. Of course, the Marxist postman was a humorless prig, but as Stalin was himself a humorless prig it is hard to imagine why this representation would have offended. In any event, Erdman died without ever seeing the play produced. You thus have an opportunity that the playwright never did.
As this is a new theater, here’s a few notes about the company and its house. 1st Stage occupies 6,250 square feet at one end of a shopping plaza in McLean, Virginia. The entrance is from a walkway not immediately visible from the parking lot; do not, as I did, attempt to get in at the nearest entrance, which is closed and locked. The seating is commodious, and fit for even an economy-sized reviewer. Artistic Director Mark Krikstan, who directed this play, has brought in a core of New York-educated actors who wish to live in this area. It is his intention to soon establish an integrated course of theatrical training for aspiring actors, and the company has acquired two classrooms in the building for that purpose. When the company is fully operational, Krikstan hopes to have his best student actors work alongside his professional core.
1st Stage came to Washington under the radar, and we were unaware of them until recently. Thus, regrettably, I reviewed not their first performance but their third from last. Don’t let my mistake prevent you from having a wonderful theatrical experience. See them tonight, unless you are watching the Klitschko-Peter fight or doing something else important. If you don’t watch them tonight, see them tomorrow. Believe it, you’ll thank me.
Running Time: 2 ½ hours, with one intermission.
When: Tonight and tomorrow, Oct 11 & 12 at 7 p.m.
Where: 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean, Virginia
Tickets: $25 ($15 student).