BWW Review: Two Tales By Russian Masters Brought To The Stage in The Mint's CHEKHOV/TOLSTOY: LOVE STORIES
"You know, I hate your plays," the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov once recalled the exalted Leo Tolstoy telling him during a friendly visit. "Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his."
One fellow who admired both Chekhov and Tolstoy was English actor, screenwriter and playwright Miles Malleson, who, a bit more than a hundred years ago, adapted short stories by each of them into one-acts which the Mint Theater Company has paired into a 90-minute diversion titled Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories.
Taken from Chekhov's "An Artist's Story", "The Artist" opens the program with the familiar premise of a spirited, intellectual young woman obsessing over a sullen, older artist.
In the garden of a Russian estate, Genya (Anna Lentz) pretends to be immersed in her book as she sneaks peeks at painter Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov) working upon a canvas. He's been invited to stay at the home of a wealthy neighbor and has been doing nothing for five weeks until this, the first day he's felt inspired to paint.
They chat a bit. He complains about what a bore his host is and compliments his appealing fan for appreciating his skill and sensitivity. But Genya's sister, Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) has no interest in Nicov's creation and regards art as a waste of time when there are peasants who suffer from a lack of basic necessities. The play turns into a debate about the value of art as part of the human experience, in both viewing and participating.
It's a pleasant enough piece, but director Jonathan Bank, who is The Mint's artistic director, paces it lethargically, with long empty beats of silence contributing nothing.
The tempo is only slightly picked up by director Jane Shaw for "Michael", taken from Tolstoy's "What Men Live By."
This one's a fable about a peasant shoemaker (J. Paul Nicholas) who, much to the chagrin of his wife (Katie Firth), brings home a starving, cold beggar named Michael (Malik Reed) for some warmth and food. It turns out that not only is Michael a wiz of a cobbler, but he's also an angel, sent to earth to learn some basic truths about mankind.
Observing the developments, with a bit of wisdom and a bit of absurdity, is the servant Aniuska, played with engaging energy by 91-year-old theatre veteran and social activist Vinie Burrows, who made her Broadway debut seventy years ago. If the evening doesn't quite live up to The Mint's usually impressive standards, the chance to see this sublimely seasoned artist fill her small role with captivating details is certainly worthwhile.