If Floyd King hasn’t been declared a national treasure by now, then his bravura turn in “The Russian National Postal Service” should cement the deal. Known for his superb clowning, Mr. King imbues the role of a lonely Russian widower with gentle comedic shadings and a dexterous touch of melancholy.
Oleg Bogaev’s 85-minute play, directed by Paul Mullins, bracingly kicks off Studio Theatre’s season-long salute to Russian playwrights and authors.
Mr. Bogaev, at 34, is a fresh voice for those who think that country’s theater begins and ends with Chekhov. The playwright is an integral part of a burgeoning theater center in Yekaterinburg, the Siberian city where the last czar and his family faced the violent end of their days.
Mr. Bogaev might represent the “new Russia,” but in its black humor, his play retains vestiges of the old regime. As whimsical as the play can be, it is at heart a bleak look at a man who has lived to see the end of communism, only to find he has no vital place in post-Soviet Russia.
Mr. King plays Ivan Sidorovich Zhukov, a retired laborer living in a shabby one-room flat that appears untouched since Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe. His late wife was a postal worker who apparently hoarded mail supplies, since the apartment is filled with dusty, Dr. Seuss-ian teetering stacks of envelopes, stationery and cardboard boxes.
Ivan spends his days in his bathrobe, occasionally playing Russian folk songs on the accordion and taking the odd nap. He lacks even a TV to numb him — it is broken, and since his government pension only covers food for one week out of the month, there is no money for repairs.
His life may be threadbare, but his imagination remains fertile. Ivan, a solitary figure who reminds you of the main character in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” feverishly composes letters to long-lost comrades, the National Television Network, and the Kremlin. There are mash notes to Queen Elizabeth II (Catherine Flye), vigorous missives to Lenin (Tobin Atkinson), and chatty shout-outs to the Martians (Anthony Gallagher, Michael Wilson) and the bedbugs (Amy Couchoud, Stephen Notes). Leaving nothing to chance, he also writes the replies. Like Krapp, Ivan is kept alive by the sound of his own voice.
As Ivan drifts in and out of sleep, his pen pals fill the apartment until it is a dreamscape of aliens and vermin, with the occasional cosmonaut (John Collins), literary figure (Robinson Crusoe, played by Cecil Baldwin) or Russian leader (Scott McCormick, as Stalin) thrown in for good measure.
A play this surreal and sad depends on physical comedy, a gift Mr. King possesses in abundance. With his red-rimmed eyes and hollowed-out, rubbery face, Mr. King brings a weary grace to the character of Ivan, a magician who does his best work without an audience, with only his mind and a mirror to witness his conjuring.
The play requires subtlety, and Mr. King never overplays, instead uttering a delicate sigh of wonder every time he encounters a “new” letter, or executing a dandy variation on the spit-take when he drops his teacup in droll surprise.
Ivan’s correspondents, including Miss Flye as the imperious, royally waving Queen Elizabeth and Mr. Atkinson as a peppery Lenin, are also deftly drawn.
“The Russian National Postal Service” may sound like an inspiring tribute to the power of the imagination, but Mr. Bogaev’s play undercuts any sappiness with a pervasive sense of emptiness and obsolescence. Ivan is inventive, but he is scratching against the walls of his cell. Russia has moved on and left him behind. In the midst of vast change, Ivan’s world grows smaller and smaller until he has nothing to hold onto but a stubby pencil.
WHAT: “The Russian National Postal Service” by Oleg Bogaev