By: Darryl Reilly
OK, I’ll be offstage, so I won’t distract you, I’ll just be a voice in your head. If you’re anything like me you already have a voice in your head anyway, so tonight you’ll have two. Hope it’s not too strange. It can feel a little intimate. Like even though everyone can hear this, it feels like I’m just talking …to you.
So, states The Director regarding audience usage of headphones to hear his droll commentary before actors perform Chekhov’s First Play. A typical example of his wry remarks are:
A rare cock joke from Chekhov there.
A feature of his early work …We talked a lot in rehearsals about sex. All the characters have different relationships to sex.
This hilarious, poignant and beguiling deconstruction was first presented by the Irish theater company Dead Centre, at the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival. This New York City-based Irish Arts Center production is its U.S. premiere.
Discovered with its title missing years after his death in 1904, Anton Chekhov’s first play was written at the age of 19 and put aside. It’s a rambling five-hour long unwieldly text. It was reworked in 1961 for London’s Royal Court Theatre; starring Rex Harrison it was called Platonov, after the main character. Michael Frayn’s 1984 London National Theatre’s adaptation was entitled Wild Honey, and starred Ian McKellen. It’s a Chekhovian class-conscious piece centered around a dissolute schoolteacher.
Cleverly co-conceived and vigorously directed by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, Chekhov’s First Play is a 70-minute extraction of Chekhov’s core plot, combined with an irreverent contemporary sensibility and rendered thru superior theatricality. Ultimately, it is an affectionate spoof of Chekhov’s enduring themes and motifs, initially often in the antic manner of Mel Brooks and early Woody Allen. The second half is darker, attaining a quiet power, with an entrancing dance sequence choreographed by Liv O’Donoghue. It all coheres into a thoughtfully entertaining experience.
The talented cast of Alexandra Conlon, Tara Egan-Langley, Daniel Reardon, Paul Reid, Dylan Tighe, and Ali White, all perform their archetypical Chekhovian roles with requisite humor, melancholy and sensitivity. The co-director, the personable Mr. Moukarzel, slyly plays The Director, regaling the audience with facts, and cheeky insider information in person and through their headsets.
Scenic designer Andrew Clancy’s appealing backyard set with an adjacent two-story country house is a perfect bucolic landscape. Stephen Dodd’s lighting design, Jimmy Eadie and Kevin Gleeson’s sound design and Grace O’Hara’s effects and onstage design are all in overdrive, achieving a kinetic presentation. Costume designer Saileóg O’Halloran provides a pleasing collection of mostly 19th century-style garments.
The meta Chekhov’s First Play is funny and moving, just like the playwright’s renowned works.
Chekhov’s First Play (through November 6, 2022)
Irish Arts Center, 726 11th Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.irishartscenter.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission