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Wednesday, Apr 28 1999

Page 2 of 3

Some of the skits seem to "belong" to one or two actors in the group. For example, "The Evils of Tobacco" is a one-man piece performed by Gene Mocsy, who takes obvious pleasure in showing off his talents. He comes on looking uxorious and meek, in lightly graying hair and a brown twill coat, and announces that for the general improvement of the audience he's been asked by his wife to speak against the evils of tobacco. "I have no personal feelings in the matter, but my wife ... does," he says, openly snorting a greenish pinch of snuff. Then, except to notice that a fly once died in his snuffbox, "probably of a nervous disorder," he avoids his topic altogether. The poor henpecked man evolves from a shambling and mild-mannered character to a desperate maniac, revealing in the process that he's exploited by his proprietress wife and has a drinking problem. Mocsy does an excellent job of working both humor and pathos out of Chekhov's simple script, and although he doesn't preen, it's clearly his showcase piece of the night.

"Clearly" because his next role doesn't work so well. "Inspector General" is Chekhov's version of the old story about a king, or a god, who disguises himself as an average person to learn how his subjects act when they're not in the presence of a god or a king. The new, corrupt Inspector General -- who inspects for corruption in local institutions -- chats up the driver of a hired sleigh to find out what the people know about him. The driver tells everything: He's heard of the Inspector's drinking and carousing and even knows the names of his mistresses. This should be a funny skit, but the two actors have thrown their energies into other parts of the show. Mocsy puts on an unconvincing gruff voice as the driver; and Paul Smith, who changes his voice on purpose as the Inspector General, doesn't find one that works. "Inspector General" is an overlong dud.

Smith's best piece is "Swan Song," a monologue, or near-monologue, by an old actor in a darkened theater. This skit has more in common with Chekhov's later style than the rest of the show, because almost none of it is funny. The actor Svetlovidov grapples with his memories of triumph and misery, comparing the theater to "a bottomless pit, like a tomb with death inside." Smith does a virtuoso job -- wrapped in a shawl and carrying a candle, acting drunk and growly, revisiting King Lear in a booming voice as Nikita the prompter (Jonathan Gonzalez) plays the Fool. The trouble is that the sketch follows "Inspector General," near but not quite at the end of an already long evening, and Svetlovidov's self-indulgence is taxing.

Jonathan Gonzalez has his high moment in "The Bear," one of the show's strongest pieces. He shares it with Daria Hepps, who plays a grieving widow. She lives on an elegant estate but sees no one, weeping at the portrait of her dead husband, who wasn't always faithful. A rude, bearlike landlord named Smirnov bursts into the house over the protests of her servant, Luka, and demands payment on a debt her late husband left behind. She can't give him the money immediately, but if he doesn't get it he'll go bankrupt, so he makes himself at home in the living room and drinks her vodka until she pays up. This gives Chekhov a chance to let the landlord and widow argue about coarseness and gentility. She accuses him of not knowing how to behave in female company, and he makes fun of sensitive behavior, telling her all about his romantic and idealistic youth. His speech is like the doctor's pessimistic rant about idealism and hope in Uncle Vanya, and Gonzalez, looking Russian enough in a long coat and boots, without affecting an accent, delivers it with blustering force. Hepps is alternately delicate and hysterical as the widow, and Paul Smith makes Luka a good teeth-rattling, feather-dusting wimp of a servant, partly by borrowing mannerisms from Wallace Shawn in Vanya on 42nd Street.

The title piece is also excellent -- a wordless pantomime about a sneeze during a ballet and its consequences. Paul Smith and Jennifer Davis enter as an eminent Russian official and his wife, dressed respectively in epaulets and a burgundy gown. Behind them sit a brown-coated fop of a minor official (Jeremy Koerner) and his appalling, overdressed wife (Hepps). This piece doesn't "belong" to anybody; all the actors do a good job. It's like a Chaplin film, vaudeville timed to lulls and climaxes in music from The Nutcracker.

Koerner and Davis have their own spotlight moment in "The Proposal," in which Koerner plays a nervous hypochondriac trying to propose to Natalya, a plain neighbor girl -- the hypochondriac hops around like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, without ever coming to the point, and Natalya gives two loud, floor-tramping tantrums -- but since it's a long skit, coming after the indulgent "Swan Song" to close out the show, their performances pale. It's too bad, because I like Davis; she shows real range and charm. The People's Republic should have shaved away the weaker pieces and maybe rearranged the order, because there isn't anything inspired about the way Michael Frayn has collected the skits. The show is like a museum exhibit passing through town -- old, historically interesting nuggets of a great Rhooshun's incidental work, sometimes hilarious but also a little wearing, and only for a limited time.


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