- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

Studio Theatre’s staging of “Ivanov” boasts a bevy of excellent portrayals by some of Washington’s finest actors. But filling a production of the rarely performed, will-o’-the wisp Anton Chekhov play with immaculate performances is like spending a ton of money to make Paris Hilton look like Queen Victoria.

Why bother?

The play also gives Studio a chance to show off its spiffy new building, and newest stage, which is twice as tall as the older main theater. This renovated space affords set designer Russell Metheny ample room to capture the dachas and towering trees of the Russian countryside. All of this splendor is not quite enough to trump “Ivanov’s” shortcomings.

“Ivanov” was written on a dare in two weeks in 1887. It has a certain curatorial interest, as it shows a young Chekhov experimenting with what would become his signature style — natural, sprung-from-life characters, the breaking of conventions, sound effects and folk music, and the juxtaposition of comedy and heartbreak. British playwright David Hare tackled this new translation in 1997. While commendable, it does not approach the liveliness and freshness of Tom Stoppard’s translation of “The Seagull.”

Raw and almost brattily controversial, “Ivanov” clearly is an early play. While Chekhov is brave for confronting Russian anti-Semitism, the remarks uttered about the Jewish character Anna (Susan Wilder) seem crude and blatantly sensational. There is no exploration of why the characters hate Jews, just a stream of invective against one character, who already has tuberculosis, for heaven’s sake.

“Ivanov” revolves around the moods — and oh, are there moods — of the title character (Philip Goodwin), a broke landowner gripped by depression. Flouting convention by marrying a Jewish woman, Ivanov is not exhilarated by living on the edge but, rather, exhausted by living inside his head. He takes his emotional temperature every five minutes, and his self-absorbed indecision makes Hamlet look like a Type A multitasker.

His black clouds hold a force, however, as the entire community is held in thrall by Ivanov’s malaise. Pavel (J. Fred Shiffman) and Zinaida (Nancy Robinette), the wealthy bourgeois next door, endlessly talk about Ivanov at their insufferable parties — their daughter Sasha (Jenna Sokolowski) is madly in love with him.

Ivanov’s wife, Anna, is literally dying for the man, and his uncle the Count (David Sabin) and the unctuous local doctor (Tom Story) can barely utter a sentence without mentioning his name.

Ivanov feels condemned by his influence, and only wants to be released from his despair. He gets his wish at the end, after a farce of a wedding that is both horrific and funny.

Although the play teems with superb character studies, “Ivanov” suffers from a sameness and cloying repetition. Scenes are mercilessly talky, and all of them revolve around some aspect of Ivanov’s character.

The production, however, looks terrific, from the shabby chic of Mr. Metheny’s set to Helen Huang’s costumes, where jeans and T-shirts meet the corsets and Degas-like ballet skirts of the late 19th century.

“Ivanov” is elevated by faultless performances, starting with the ascetic grace of Mr. Goodwin’s Ivanov, the reluctant charismatic.

David Sabin, who lately seems incapable of an acting misstep, is at once charming and cruel as the aging Count, who tosses off insulting remarks as if they were meringues. Mr. Shiffman is so spot-on as the drunkard Pavel that you can almost smell the vodka fumes, but rather than give us a caricature of a sot, the actor imbues him with a heart-rending compassion and addled wisdom.

Miss Robinette cracks her fan with avaricious glee as the money-grubbing Zinaida, while Brilane Bowman plays a rich widow with a mixture of faint ridiculousness and commanding style. As Sasha, Miss Sokolowski crisply conveys the girl’s youthful folly as well as her rapidly emerging backbone.

All of this talent might have been better lavished on a more satisfying play, but Studio’s production of “Ivanov” is notable for introducing us to a young Chekhov and the promise of brilliance to come.

***

WHAT: “Ivanov” by Anton Chekhov

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Through Dec. 12.

TICKETS: $35 to $48

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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