Brothers and sisters, think back to the day you asked your Heart of Hearts to join you in eternal matrimony, if there was such a day. Did you do it in the traditional way, at a restaurant, kneeling aside the starched linens, with musicians playing sweetly in the background? Perhaps, in a comfortable relationship of long standing, you did it casually, as though you were proposing to go to a movie. Did you do it while the two of you were at the top of a ferris wheel overlooking Niagara Falls? Did you employ a skywriter? Perhaps you proposed from a stage, as I did, with two hundred spectators in the audience.
How did it go? Did you forget your lines? Did you forget the crucial line, thus mystifying your intended? Did you sweat and stammer? Did your tummy make odd rumbling noises? In your fear and anxiety, did you – horror of horrors – call your beloved by the name of an old lover?
Well, don’t worry. Anton Chekhov has you beat.
Ivan Vasilyevich Lomov (Jamie Smithson) has decided to propose marriage to Natalya Tchubukov (Kimberly Gilbert). Because this is late nineteenth-century Russia, the protocols are a little different. Lomov must first secure the permission of Natalya’s father, Stepan Stepanovich (Cody Nickell). Lomov is spectacularly nervous and inarticulate, but it is of no moment. The Lomov and the Tchubukov families have been neighbors and fast friends for generations, and Stepan Stepanovich is delighted to welcome Lomov into his family. He goes to get Natalya so that Lomov can secure her consent. And then the veil drops.
Lomov begins to think aloud, and we begin to see what this is all about. He is not proposing out of passion, or even genuine affection. He is a hypochondriac, and he believes Natalya (or someone) can help relieve his many symptoms. Plus, he is preparing for his old age (he is 35) and he thinks Natalya, who is ten years younger, can serve as his caretaker.
Natalya arrives, and she greets Lomov enthusiastically and affectionately. Lomov launches into his windy proposal, and his troubles begin. He blithely asserts ownership over some disputed acreage between the two estates and Natalya, a lively and feisty women, immediately disputes his claim. Then they get into an argument about who has the better hunting dog. Stepan Stepanovich is called in, and he falls into a rage against Lomov. The proposal, long off the rails, rattles on to an astonishing conclusion.
I know, I know, these are first-world problems. But self-absorption, hypochondria and stupidity know no socioeconomic bounds. It is easy to place this story in an impoverished village on the shores of the Ganges, and substitute names and specifics. But it’s more enjoyable to make fun of the rich.
Edge of the Universe Players 2 has chosen to produce The Marriage Proposal as a radio farce – a good idea, since the play is particularly suited to radio. The story is all in the words; good actors will marry the words to facial expressions and body language, but you can do that too, in your head. It helps that the play is in the hands of three high-quality actors here; the nice thing about radio is that you can cast the best actors available without worrying about age or body type.
The company, and casting director Naomi Robin, have done so here. All three actors are familiar and well-regarded DC stage veterans. Nickell is a four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee; Smithson – delightfully slimy in this role – has appeared at Folger with Bedlam in Sense and Sensibility as Robert and Edward Ferrars, for which he won a Helen Hayes nomination. And the remarkable Gilbert has been a player on DC stages for twenty years, appearing in dozens of shows. I will always remember her for her chilling performance as a young child in the one-actor show The K of D, done in Woolly’s rehearsal room.
These three, under Stephen Jarrett’s unfussy direction, and helped by David Bryan Jackson’s sensibly restrained sound design, do good service to the text. The play is at first a little difficult to get into, hindered as it is in part by its nineteenth-century formality and by the Russian practice of referring to males by all three of their names. But all plays have a settling-in period before the fictive dream can take flight, and The Marriage Proposal’s is relatively brief; by the time Lomov is halfway into his incredibly awkward presentation to Stepan Stepanovich (who initially thinks he wants to borrow money) you should be there, and the story should carry you comfortably to the conclusion.
Chekhov himself was not, shall we say, an admirer of this play. He called it a “wretched, boring, vulgar little skit,” but I think he was a little hard on it. It’s not The Seagull, but it is a lovely little 28-minute comic soufflé. And like all soufflés, it is meant to be enjoyed. After a hard day on the front lines fighting Covid, or burying the dead, or helping your children cope with online learning, or trying to put the Trump administration to bed, you deserve a soufflé. This one happens to be free, so I suggest that you go to this link and listen to it.
I also recommend that you use headphones and close your eyes. It will help your visual imagination, plus, everyone will think you are asleep and won’t bother you. Except, of course, your Heart of Hearts, who may shake your shoulder to remind you to do the dishes, or take out the garbage.
The Marriage Proposal
Edge of the Universe Players 2
Running time: 28 minutes
Available until December 2, 2020
Free. Listen here
The Marriage Proposal, by Anton Chekhov . Directed by Stephen Jarrett . Featuring Cody Nickell, Jamie Smithson, and Kimberly Gilbert . Sound design and audio production by David Bryan Jackson . Naomi Robin was the casting director . Produced by Edge of the Universe Players 2 . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.