Brothers and Sisters, Perestroika's Defining Production, Still Packs A Punch; Two Very Bad Plays

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Brothers and Sisters By Lev Dodin, Sergey Bekhterev and Arkadiy Katsman Lincoln Center Festival (closed) I was glad to see it on this year's festival schedule but also anxious that it had arrived much too late. A few things have happened since 1985, such as the dissolution of the country the play depicts and an unprecedented economic boom in the West that has made communism (particularly the always hazy "on the ground" reality of communism) fade from popular American memory like a bygone nightmare. Brothers and Sisters was anything but dated or tired, however. It seemed to draw vital energy, in fact, from its very foreignness and remoteness. With its deceptively simple vision of material scarcity, emotional desolation and edge-of-famine survival, it stood as a potent reality check for people who think that the NASDAQ collapse was a tragedy and that $2-per-gallon gasoline constitutes dire social hardship, and this effect was reinforced by the air of "I was there" (or "my parents were there") authenticity that the extraordinary 40-member ensemble carried about them. The earnest socialist idealism of those who can barely read, their tropistic cohesion and backbiting provincialism under adversity, their miraculously enduring folk traditions and uncanny immunity to despair: all this was more moving than anyone could have anticipated, because it still read as a risk?a poignantly open-handed effort to share a world whose history, even when written, has been largely buried. Joseph Conrad once said that what was "divine" in the Russian soul was "resignation." No one who saw this production could ever doubt or disparage that remark.

    The story, for all its eventfulness, is essentially uncomplicated. The central character is Mikhail Pryaslin (Mishka), who returns from winter work at a logging camp at war's end, suddenly manly at age 17, to find himself appreciated in a new way by the lonely, overworked women in his village of Pekashino?almost all of whose men have been killed. Mishka ignites a scandal by having an affair with a vivacious, thirtysomething widow named Varvara, and the kolkhoz chairman, Anfisa (under pressure from Mishka's widowed mother, who fears the loss of her main breadwinner), ensures that the lovers are permanently separated. Mishka soon takes revenge by refusing to defend Anfisa when she's challenged for the chairmanship, although she had helped his family get through the war ("The rule of women must end" is the thankless slogan brandished at the postwar meeting), and the rest of the play's long, episodic plot follows along these same lines: pitting happiness and personal interest against group responsibility, and depicting the good-faith acceptance of responsibility (to the self or group) as a deadly gambit.

    The set by Eduard Kochergin?a central log wall that lifts and spins to become now a hayloft, now a dump truck, now a fence, etc., surrounded by 20-foot-tall plain sticks with bird feeders and a pair of wide log gates?beautifully captures both the bleak colorlessness of the environment and the endless, seat-of-the-pants versatility demanded of the peasants. Dodin's direction, too, often makes the general desolation seem part of a marvelous efficiency, as when technological items (a record player, a telephone) are made to stand out like unpredictable animals, or when a group of women mime the gestures of sowing and then suddenly release handfuls of real grain that fall to the floor like hard rain.

    Most memorable of all are the splendidly specific characterizations (particularly Tatyana Shestakova as Anfisa, Natalya Fomenko as Varvara and Pyotr Semak as Mishka) as well as the fascinating group dynamics in the ensemble scenes, some of which create complexly layered portraits with little or no language. The feast (furnished with an illegally slaughtered cow) celebrating the return of the sole survivor of the village regiment, for instance, miraculously maintains an air of festivity despite the occasional anguished cries of the bereaved. Later, Anfisa's obtuse and abusive husband, who returns unexpectedly, is introduced in a brilliantly ambiguous scene in which he silently shares vodka, music and tinned meat with two equally obtuse old comrades. My favorite ensemble scene depicts a strange and fragile camaraderie that the women enjoy while chatting about desire and original sin: Varvara tells the gathered group a story about a female kolkhoz chairman who volunteers to climb an impossibly tall tower in order to ask God why women are so burdened with children that they "never see the light." God answers that animals have no such burden because they make love only once a year. He offers similar conditions to the women, who instantly refuse.

    What gives Brothers and Sisters its longevity?in 2000 New York, at any rate?isn't its admirably candid picture of a political system so corrupt that no one's hands can remain clean (which is old news by now, the new details notwithstanding). It's rather the portrait of a people whose gravely playful spirit is literally indestructible, because something in their cultural memory knows that life is worth more than they've ever been able to see for themselves. Ultimately, the piece is about perseverance in the face of imminent failure, a theme as old as drama itself but rare enough on any modern American stage. Bravos to all.


    Never Swim Alone By Daniel MacIvor

    The Crumple Zone By Buddy Thomas Daniel MacIvor would doubtless think it unfair of me to measure his spare, three-character one-act Never Swim Alone against the epically conceived Brothers and Sisters. The truth is, though, the Russian project is a perfect foil for this Canadian playwright's limited ambitions. If Brothers and Sisters asks basic questions about the relationship of self-interest to individual and national survival, pressing them to the point of heartbreak, Never Swim Alone raises similar questions through stereotypical characterizations and quick and snappy simultaneous dialogue, then pretends to press them deeply by casting the inquiry in the form of a seriocomic game.

    With the stage empty except for a lifeguard chair and a body downstage center covered in a red towel, two young men in suits, Frank (John Maria) and Bill (Douglas Dickerman), enter through the audience, greeting and shaking hands with spectators like unctuous politicos. A pretty young woman in a blue bathing suit (Susan O'Connor) rises from under the towel, blows a whistle and proceeds to play referee in a strangely personal contest between the men that lasts for 13 "rounds." Frank and Bill have been friends since childhood, and their competition hinges on seemingly arbitrary points, such as the color of their socks and the reputations of their fathers. After each round, the referee raises a hand to indicate the winner. We're told that one man has a gun in his briefcase (actually both do), and the contest grows more and more violent and frenetic as it approaches the revelation of a dark secret. All I'll reveal about the secret is that it involves the death of the young woman (as a girl) as a direct result of the men's competitive behavior, as boys. There's no question that MacIvor has hit upon a jazzy and amusing structure here, and the acting in Timothy P. Jones' production is sharp and strong. The problem is that, for 65 minutes, you wait in vain for either the competition itself or the referee/dead girl's judgment of it to amount to more than a glib, one-note social critique. The boxing trope seems only superficially relevant in the end, having nothing whatever to do with what happened to the woman. The eroticism of her physical presence remains a red herring, despite the fact that she measures the men's dicks at one point (it's a tie). And her criteria for awarding round-victories is so inconsistent one eventually loses interest in her viewpoint (she's offended by a crude insinuation about Frank's wife, for instance, but not by Bill calling a mutual friend's wife "That dog").

    Whatever the sketchiness or quippiness of Never Swim Alone, I'd never accuse MacIvor of writing it just to break into television. There seems to me no other reason whatever for the existence of Buddy Thomas' gay lifestyle comedy The Crumple Zone, however. As usual with sitcoms-in-waiting, the real subject of this show isn't its trite plot?one of three roommates on Staten Island has an affair while his live-in actor-lover is away on tour, leaving the other roommate in the middle?but rather the catty glibness of its characters. An anxiously overwound Mario Cantone basks in the role of Terry, the guy in the middle, and the rest of the cast's timing is slick enough so the audience always laughs in the middle of the laugh-track pauses. The jokes hit for me less than half the time, though, so the piece seemed barely worth leaving the couch for.

    Never Swim Alone, at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 239-6200, through September 2.

    The Crumple Zone, at the Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Pl. (betw. 11th & Perry Sts.), 206-1515, through August 13.