Arís Theatre: The Friel Deal – Two Plays After Chekhov

I had added Arís Theatre’s The Friel Deal to my calendar mostly as a fall-back if I couldn’t find anything else to do on Saturday. It consisted of two plays by Brian Friel based on works by Anton Chekhov, The Bear and The Yalta Game. I never really liked Chekhov’s original version of the first one, but the second was based on the short story The Lady with the Dog, which is one that I do really like. A friend of mine ended up seeing it last weekend and spoke very highly of it, so I went ahead and bought a ticket.

The two one-act plays were directed by two different people: The Bear by Kathleen McManus and The Yalta Game by Tim McDonough. The characters in both plays were portrayed with Irish accents, which was odd because they retained their original Russian names and the place names were all part of the Russian Empire. At worst it seemed a bit of a caricature of the Irish and at best it seemed to be a bit of a fetishization of the same. Given that Arís is dedicated to presenting Irish theater and literature to Atlanta audiences, I certainly don’t think any disrespect was intended and they probably really meant it as homage to a culture they cherish even if it didn’t really come across that way in practice. However, there’s absolutely nothing in the plays that seems to call for the use of the accent and, though a number of people involved may be ethnically Irish, I don’t think that many, if any, are actually from the Republic of Ireland. That leaves me feeling kid of icky about the use of the accents for these plays. Couple that with the fact that all but one of the actors noticeably dropped the accent at least once – with two of those four dropping it far more regularly – it really would have been better to have left the accent out of it altogether.

As I said, I don’t particularly like Chekhov’s The Bear, so I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t like Friel’s adaptation. It’s about a “grieving” widow named Elena Ivanova Popova and Gregory Stepanovitch Smirnov, to whom Elena Ivanova’s late husband owed a significant debt prior to dying. Popova has locked herself away from life since her husband’s death and Smirnov is the first person, aside from her servants, who pushes his way into her life. He is desperate to collect on his debts as he has a lien coming due the next day and will lose his land if he fails to pay. Popova says that she will pay him in two days when her steward comes back and can retrieve the cash. The two clash horribly and, as things escalate, Smirnov challenges Popova to a duel. She doesn’t back down and Smirnov falls in love with her for it. The two end up making out in the end.

There are two reasons that I didn’t like the original, the first being that the two main characters are just terribly obnoxious people and I generally don’t enjoy stories that focus only on terribly obnoxious people. The second reason is something that I feel a little more strongly about: it depicts the beginning of a terribly unhealthy relationship that almost certainly would turn out to be abusive and, though there is a level of absurdity to it, it doesn’t really speak negatively of the idea of it. Friel’s changes to the script made me like it even less. In Chekhov’s play, Smirnov’s brusque manner is blamed largely on his exhaustion, hunger, and desperation. In Friel’s he is made out to be boorish by nature and his character focuses much less on his desperation to pay off his own debts to save his farm, making his behavior much less forgivable. And while Smirnov does request some vodka in Chekhov’s play, he doesn’t get plastered. I honestly don’t know if that’s really in Friel’s writing or just in McManus’ direction, to be honest, because there is a line where Smirnov says that he needs to be careful not to drink too much. In Friel’s, he also tries to get with one of Popova’s maids, whereas Chekhov’s character doesn’t come across as being in the least bit lascivious. Whereas Chekhov’s play had both characters being intolerably annoying, this extra bit of skeeziness made Smirnov the worse of the two, which added a level of misogyny to the play that I didn’t read into Chekhov’s version. It didn’t help that I felt that Erin Greenway’s portrayal of Popova didn’t play up the pretense of her mourning; I read the character’s moaning about her grieving in the beginning of Chekhov’s play as being melodramatic and absurd to the point of being insincere and think that this should have been displayed more on the stage. I suspect that this weakness is a little more likely to have come from McManus’ direction as she seemed to make the play focus more on the laughs than the characteristics of Popova and Smirnov that fueled their conflict and, ultimately, their romance. The performances by Greenway and Tamil Periasamy as Smirnov were both good. Chris Schulz as Luka, Popova’s doting servant, was a little stiff, reading the character more like an English butler than as a Russian servant. He didn’t do as good of a job of keeping up the Irish accent as the other two, but I thought he did maintain a consistent character and did a good job with playing up the more absurd aspects of the character and handled the bits of physical comedy fairly well.

I thought that The Yalta Game was more interesting. Its framework, location, and character names come almost entirely from Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog but it kind of subverts – or maybe it would be better to say that it inverts – significant portions of the story. The eponymous game consists of making up stories about what the people around them were “really” doing, imagining a secret, much more fascinating life for them. It does not appear at all in Chekhov’s story but seems to derive from one observation made by the short-story’s main character, Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov:

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth — such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities — all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.

This observation in Chekhov’s work comes near the end of the story. Gurov begins as a terribly bitter cynic and a misogynist (the “lower race” reference in the above quote is about women). His marriage to a woman when he was still a student has turned cold and loveless and he finds his life terribly boring so he frequently pursues affairs with other women, through which he finds an exciting escape until he finds the intimacy unbearable. While on vacation in Yalta, he successfully pursues Ana Sergeyevna Von Diderits, a woman who is always seen in a beret with a lapdog and who has married a man significantly older than herself and has found herself in a life that leaves her unengaged. Her trip to Yalta came as she had begun feeling exceptionally restless and in desperate need of something new in her life. The two meet and have an affair that lasts for some time until Von Diderits is called to come back home as her husband is in ill health. As they part, neither expect to see each other again. Von Diderits is clearly saddened by this – or at least the prospect of returning to her life with her husband – and Gurov thinks little of it. As time passes, Gurov realizes that he’s fallen in love with her and finds his way to the town where she lives, figures out where her house is, and basically stalks her. He confronts her with his love at the local premier of Sidney Jones’ “The Geisha” and she tells him that they cannot be seen together and says that she’ll come to see him in Moscow. Their affair continues in secret and Gurov becomes more and more in love. The story ends optimistically with the couple thinking of ways that they can be together in the open.

Friel’s play goes through each of these scenes but often diverges from Chekhov’s tale. Gurov comes across as rather fun loving in the beginning and you don’t really get that big of a sense of his cynicism. You certainly don’t get the idea that he thinks Von Diderits is pathetic at first. He actually says more cynical things as his relationship progresses. For example, the version of the above quote in the play actually weakens the sentiment, stating that there are hints of reality in the supposedly inauthentic day to day lives that people live and also inauthenticity within their private lives. Von Diderits is given a monologue expressing that, from her love of him, her lover seemed to appear everywhere she looked while they were apart; feelings that were described as Gurov’s by Chekhov. When the two embrace at the end and discuss how they might somehow find a way to be together in the open, Friel’s Gurov cynically states to the audience that this will never happen. There is nowhere in the play for my favorite quote from the short story: Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence. Gurov’s love in Chekhov’s short story seems to serve in the role that the divine plays in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, namely that through which the main character finds his true self. By the end of Friel’s play, though, Gurov’s attraction to Von Diderits seems to me to be self-serving and dishonest, losing any sense of the authenticity or optimism that I get in the short story.

If this review sounds entirely negative, it’s not. I definitely prefer Chekhov’s existential romance, both in terms of the theme and the of quality of the writing (in as far as I’ve encountered it in translation). However, Friel obviously doesn’t agree with Chekhov and he does a decent job of crafting the story in a way that expresses his own cynicism regarding the potential for love as a path to authenticity. Chekhov’s notion of private authenticity is dismissed by Friel as being but a game we play with ourselves. I didn’t really enjoy it, though, because I kept comparing it to the original story. If he’d changed the character names and the location then I think that I might have been able to get into it more rather than experiencing it more through a constant analysis of how it differs and, I’m afraid to say, falls short of Chekhov’s writing. Still, I found it reasonably well performed, Eric Lang’s poor handling of the accent in his portrayal of Gurov aside. The play, like the story, is set all over the area in and around the resort town of Yalta, which required us to imagine the setting without any real props or set pieces to aid us. The script also had the two characters abruptly shift from emotional interactions with each other to narration. I felt that McDonough’s direction brought out a decent naturalness to the story telling despite these obstacles and Christina Leidel and Eric Lang made the characters seem real enough that Friel’s thesis came out well argued.

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