Those who are well acquainted with either the Count or the Doctor need not feel compelled to see Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories, a pair of one-act plays staged off-Broadway on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street (through March 14). But for newcomers or curious students, the 90-minute presentation will serve as a useful introduction.
The late English playwright and actor Miles Malleson (he appeared in dozens of movies including Hitchcock’s Stage Fright) adapted Chekhov’s An Artist’s Story in 1919, renaming it The Artist, and Tolstoy’s story What Men Live By in 1917, renaming it Michael. The Artist and Michael are being staged together for the first time by the Mint Theater Company, a noble institution led by the director Jonathan Bank, whose calling is to locate old, forgotten plays that in many cases haven’t been seen anywhere for many years and breathe life into them. This production is co-directed by Bank and Jane Shaw.
First up is the 45-minute The Artist, which takes place entirely in the fields of the kind of serene country estate where Chekhov the dramatist so frequently plied his trade. My affinity for Chekhov is limited; I invariably develop a slight sense of frustration as the doctor lays out his kit of mismatched tools, hinting that things are absurd and unworkable among humans. The title figure is Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov), a typically Chekhovian study in melancholy, loneliness, and poverty who has been starved for inspiration for weeks until this very day, when he finally felt inspired to pick up his brushes and take to a canvas. Other visitors at the property, whose master is the hearty philistine Byelkurov (J. Paul Nicholas), include a mother (Katie Firth) of two grown young women: the crusading liberal reformer Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) and the sweet, quiet younger sister Genya (Anna Lentz). Genya’s fascination with both Nicov’s artistic sensibility and his contemptuousness — he dismisses Lidia’s calling as a waste of time given that the peasants for whom her heart bleeds need spiritual and aesthetic guidance, not mere material improvements — draw her near to him, but as this is a Chekhov play, don’t get your hopes up that the two of them will buy a dacha and happily raise six children and a sheep dog together. As usual with Chekhov, there’s a certain hypnotic fragility to his visions of life and love, but the way his characters invariably work at cross purposes to one another and the plot invariably points to one kind of letdown or another can feel like a well-practiced routine. In any case, The Artist is pure, distilled Chekhov.
Michael, on the other hand, is a Christian parable built around biblical references, though I’ll avoid giving away plot details. The scenery adjusts slightly to suggest the dark roots of a flourishing tree displayed in the backdrop of the previous play as we meet a struggling couple, the humble bootmaker Simon (Nicholas) and his wife Matryona (Firth), who live with a servant, Anuiska (Vinie Burrows). Simon has been sent to town to buy a sheepskin large enough to make coats to get the family through the winter, having worked all year to save enough money. Instead of coming back with a sheepskin, however, he presents a beggar, Michael (Malik Reed). As if Matryona didn’t have enough problems! She is cross with her husband, at least until Michael smiles at her. Then things change.
Tolstoy’s sentimental side, and his Christianity, are in full flower in the story, written in 1885, and on the New York stage opportunities to be treated to such fervently Christian themes are rare. Still, in dramatic terms the play feels a bit undercooked. Its central mystery — who exactly Michael is, why he remains silent, and why he smiles — doesn’t so much develop as it does float along, and the resolution is spelled out in an earnest, didactic way. Still, it’s a lean, tight story that at least doesn’t mistake ambiguity for depth, and the lessons it imparts are worthy ones. What dwells in man? We are asked to consider, and also what is not given to us and what we live by. The answers as presented are meaningful and carry emotional weight. Though I didn’t leave the theater challenged, I did leave satisfied. I couldn’t, however, avoid a slightly mischievous thought: that Tolstoy, that grandiloquent poseur, was something of a comical Chekhov creation who was oblivious to how he appeared — a nobleman forever prattling emptily about reform while slumming it in peasant dress. The two were friends, and Chekhov once wrote, “If he were to die, a large empty space would appear in my life . . . there is no other person I love as I love him.” Seven years later, though, came the Chekhovian ending to the friendship: Once worried about the health of his much older compadre, Chekhov himself passed away, aged only 44, while the Count kept going and lived to be 82.