American dramatists have lost interest in tragedy. They recoil from the monumental and retreat to the quotidian — the cubicle, the kitchen, the barroom. Great men hold no interest. Instead of titanic figures who strike chords that resonate down the ages we meet regular folks who personify topics from today’s papers. When a playwright rolls up his sleeves, furrows his brow, and strives for an epic quality, it usually just means the play is too long.
Told in an economical two hours, Pushkin: A Verse Tragedy by Jonathan Leaf (I note that the playwright is a friend), which is playing at New York City’s Sheen Center for Thought and Culture through August 25, offers a gravitas rarely attempted in new plays these days. That’s evident upon entry, with one glance at Troy Hourie’s simple but lush set, dominated by a majestic red carpet suggesting both the imperial power of the Romanov dynasty and the heart’s roiling passions. These two forces will hurtle cataclysmically toward each other and destroy the man in between, who at the time of his death at 37 was the greatest and best-loved poet in Russia.
Played with a tightly coiled dignity by Ian Lassiter, Alexander Pushkin is a man forever struggling to maintain his poise while balanced between rival imperatives. He is biracial (even his own wife Natalya, touchingly embodied by Jenny Leona, makes a jibe about his “inferior stock”); he is a liberal who urges an end to serfdom yet is also close to Tsar Nicholas I (Gene Gillette). Though forever broke, he acts the playboy by spending extravagant sums at cards with his posh friends. And he is torn between women: His wife, superficially meek but privately demanding, is frustratingly ill-attuned to his life’s work, but her flirty little sister Alexandra (Lexi Lapp) is so ensorcelled by his verses that she sneaks them into her hymnal to read them at church. Nothing flatters a writer like telling him his writing means everything to you.
As the play goes on, we uneasily sense that Pushkin’s stubborn nature is causing walls to close in on him, just as the dueling pistols he keeps in a box can hardly be contained therein. A fortune-teller once told Pushkin that his life would end in armed confrontation with a pale figure at age 37, and as played by Lassiter this gloomy, resolutely contained man sees fate as yet another promissory note that must be paid. I found it impossible not to think of another stone-faced outsider with a weakness for the dueling ground, Ryan O’Neal’s Barry Lyndon from Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film of that name, who was equally unable to steer a path away from his own ruin.
Leaf, in such plays as Deconstruction (2017) and Sexual Healing (2010), has made something of a specialty of investigating how the sexual and the political become force multipliers for each other, and in Pushkin’s tale he has found a gripping way to do so again. Pushkin becomes an increasingly annoying political liability for the tsar, who despite his fondness for the poet engages the latter’s own serving girl as a spy to discover just how subversive Pushkin really is. Publicly calling for the liberation of the serfs can, barely, be tolerated, but the sovereign keeps Pushkin on a short leash. To make sure Pushkin knows his place, the tsar requires the poet (in scenes whose intrinsic comic potential could have been played up more) to attend official balls in the dress of a footman, and Pushkin is both stung by the public humiliation and creatively stymied by the tsar’s pressures. The ruler even edits Pushkin’s poetry for him, in the guise of doing him the favor of keeping him out of political trouble.
Pushkin is a transporting experience to an age of the elegantly savage, when flames like Pushkin’s burned too brightly to endure.
What if, the schemers at court wonder, Pushkin’s huge and potentially dangerous popularity with the public could be neutralized by private scandal? There’s this dashing young nobleman, for instance, the Count D’Anthès (Christopher Kelly), who marries into Pushkin’s family. What if it became widely believed that he was cuckolding the poet with the dainty Natalya? That Natalya and the count are frequently seen dancing together at balls opens up tantalizing possibilities. And that Natalya has reason to suspect her husband of cheating on her with her own sister gives her ample additional reason to be convinced to stray.
As directed by Christopher McElroen, who stages a breathless climax with a couple of exquisite adjustments to scenery, Pushkin is a transporting experience to an age of the elegantly savage, when flames like Pushkin’s burned too brightly to endure. That the play is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) may escape many theatergoers’ notice because the meter is so naturalistic, unforced, conversational (“the handsome guardsman wants to dance”). The style of that speech, lightly lyrical but never ornate, adds to the sense that we’re in another world, lavishly appointed and genteel yet traversed by hidden fault lines instinctively sidestepped by the most adroit. Pushkin isn’t ignorant of the danger, but like many a doomed hero before him, he finds the abyss as seductive as a beautiful woman.
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