Anonymous by Chekhov by Graves

Let’s get this out of the way first. An Anonymous Story by Anton Chekhov isn’t one of Chekhov’s plays. Like most Central Works plays, it’s by company co-director Gary Graves in collaboration with the cast and crew. It is, however, based on a novella by Chekhov, as was Central Works’ 2004 play The Duel. Nor is the anonymous narrator truly anonymous: he goes by a couple of different names in the story, but we first meet him as Stepan, a servant in the house of a St. Petersburg government functionary named Orlov.

Jordan Winer, Richard Frederick and Cat Thompson. Photo by Jay Yamada

He is, he hastens to explain, not actually a footman but posing as one for reasons of his own, infiltrating the household as a spy and sleeper agent for a political faction. Chekhov’s original 1892 story keeps his affiliations vague, but Graves spells it out that he’s a Marxist who’s simply arrived a little too early for the revolution.

Though the novella is entirely told from his point of view, in a play it seems at first a little odd to have him offering his reactions in short monologues (accentuated by Graves’s dimmed lighting and ambient music in Gregory Scharpen’s sound design) whenever the upper class are out of the room, because in the first act he’s the character who does the least. He stands silently in attendance as his master lounges around and refills the vodka when instructed, occasionally having a coughing fit from consumption.

As strange as it is to have him assert himself as the focal point when most of the time he blends into the background, that in a way is the point. He is unnoticed because as a servant, he’s not seen as a real person by Orlov and his visitors, which is presumably why he insinuated himself into the position in the first place.  But as he stands and watches and waits, he finds himself far more interested in the domestic drama unfolding than whatever his plans were, as Orlov’s married mistress shows up one day with plans to stay.

Cat Thompson is delightful in her breathless account of leaving her husband as the man she left him for barely listens, nose buried in his Russian newspaper. But living with Orlov quickly wears down her romantic notions as she bears his passive-aggressive neglect through phases of indignation, stoicism and desperate unhappiness. She’s sympathetic without making you forget that she got herself into this mess by screwing around with a complete tool, and Thompson nicely captures the feeling of someone desperately trying to salvage a hopeless relationship despite her speech being weighed down by occasional awkward Shakespeare quotes and lapses into French that she immediately translates (even something as simple as “c’est la vie”). Tammy Berlin clothes the cast handsomely in period suits and robes, and particularly gorgeous dresses for Zinaida.

Jordan Winer has a breezy, closed-off charm as Orlov, who spends his days in idle gossip and cynical philosophizing with his similarly shiftless aristocratic crony Gruzin, played with amusing, smirking smarm by Dennis Markham. Repulsed by domesticity, Orlov barely tolerates his lover, refusing to take anything she says seriously and inventing business trips to get away from her, secretly holed up at Gruzin’s house. Winer also briefly and less convincingly shows up as Orlov’s father, identical except for a dusting of white around the eyebrows and beard, who’s the true object of Stepan’s mysterious mission.

Richard Frederick, who will reprise his role as Niccolo Machiavelli this summer in the return of last year’s Graves play Machiavelli’s The Prince, makes a credible ineffectual aspiring terrorist, blending into the woodwork and impassively looking down his nose at his master’s cynical irony until he can finally take no more and leaps into feverish action. Sandra Schlechter is a hiss-worthy petty antagonist as the sour and contemptuous maid Polya, who pockets anything of value that the master or his visitors leave lying around.

Graves reduces Orlov’s circle of friends to one, the chortling libertine Gruzin, which works perfectly well in establishing Orlov as a jaded idler but makes his constant mooching of food and drink seem merely benignly quirky, because Orlov also stays with him while pretending to be out of town.

There are a few instances where the trimming of the original story becomes confusing, such as when Orlov says that Zinaida insisted that he not fire the thieving maid, when the truth is very much the opposite. In the original story what he says is true, although it has more to do with Zinaida giving up than honestly wishing Polya to stay, but here it just seems like Orlov is trying to gaslight his lover with the simplest kind of “rabbit season/duck season” reversals, like it’s Opposite Day.

On the page, An Anonymous Story is a curious choice for dramatization because of its interiority—it’s as much about wavering inaction and changes of mood as anything else—but Central Works turns it into an entertaining enough couple of hours, briskly staged by Søren Oliver for the company he cofounded. It meanders a bit in the middle of the second act (ironically enough when things finally get moving for our “anonymous” protagonist) but pays off well in the intriguingly unresolved closing scene, faithful to the source material.

An Anonymous Story by Anton Chekhov
Through March 28
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #27 of 2010, attended February 28.

Bonus links: My November 2009 Theatre Bay Area profile of Central Works, 2006 San Francisco Chronicle feature about the company, and 2004 East Bay Express review of The Duel.

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