by Hazen Cuyler
This is certainly not his finest play. It’s not even a completed play. In its original form, this untitled work is about five hours long. Several loose adaptations of Platonov have made it to the stage since Anton Chekhov’s early death (he died at just 44 of tuberculosis) but the original was never produced during his life. It was simply abandoned. Untitled, incomplete and unperformed. Blessed Unrest’s Platonov or The Contemptible, directed by Jessica Burr and housed at New Ohio Theatre, is condensed to about 100 minutes. This production is an appreciated but flawed glimpse at a very young Chekhov testing out ideas and forms that will later alter the world’s landscape of theatre.
Anna’s home is in the process of being sold by her step son, Sergei. Platonov arrives with his wife and child on the five year anniversary of his father’s death. A schoolmaster, Platonov is described as “the hero of a play or novel yet to be written in these precarious times.” He soon finds himself entangled in affairs with every woman on stage. And of course none of this is sustainable.
Jessica Burr, once again ushers the audience through vivid atmospheres. We lie beneath a starry night sky, sit as colorful fireworks burst in the distance and are frozen as a racing train speeds by. Guiding her talented actors, she constructs her show on the foundation of an impressive and connected ensemble.
As Platonov, Darrell Stokes remains pleasant to a fault. This level headed Platonov is cherished for his charm and personality early on in the play. By the play’s end, that same pleasantness becomes disturbingly apathetic.
Irina Abraham’s Anna commands the stage as the widow of a deceased General. Her Anna is strong-willed, immovable and passionately sought after. Miss Abraham’s talent is unique and inarguable. Her technical prowess holds the audience captive throughout the entirety of the play.
Laura Wickens’ adaptation is an enjoyable read. She expertly captures the nuanced behavior within Chekhov’s simple and precise language.
Chekhov was 18 when he first wrote this play. And Platonov is entirely less engrossing than his later, greater and far more influential works. It does not contain the same deeply specific, interwoven and connected community of characters his later works are known for. Not only are there fewer complexities, but characters literally show up out of nowhere. Characters float without a direct sense of destination or place. I must admit that I have not read the original five hour draft of Platonov. But I can’t help but imagine that these flaws may be the result of reducing an unfinished, five hour work to one lasting just over an hour and a half.
The set from Anna-Alisa Belous, Teddy Jefferson and Matt Opatrny is extremely minimal, cozy and adaptable. It’s startling how easily the environment transitions from a warm home to a night sky under stars. Miriam Nilofa Crowe’s fascinating lighting is hugely helpful in these environments. With help from Fan Zhang’s sound design, fireworks burst in the distance and a speeding train races past the audience. These two experiences will stay with me for a very long time.
Sarah Thea’s costumes have nice texture and color. Unfortunately, roles are doubled and ages miscast (for reasons I don’t quite understand) and quick changes are impossibly fast. This forces actors to repeatedly enter on stage half dressed.
And so we come back to the play. And the young man. Platonov or The Contemptible contains all the charm and joy and satisfaction in visiting his earlier short stories. No, they’re not the same as his later and more mature work. But that doesn’t mean they’re without value. And it doesn’t mean they aren’t fun. That’s what’s nice about Blessed Unrest’s production. Its value comes from the joy in exploring and sharing an important moment in this great artist’s evolution. In the introduction to Paul Schmidt’s famed collection of Chekhov’s works, he explains that Chekhov was a great writer not because of some supernatural gift, but because he wrote every single day without fail for 25 years. Chekhov died at 44. He was 18 when he wrote Platonov. In Chekhov’s own words, when asked what it takes to become a good writer, he said, “You need a good a**”. So, perhaps what we can appreciate is not some remarkable singular work. But a moment taken from a great man’s history. One moment in the journey of a great artist. On his way to attaining a truly remarkable a**.
Photos: Maria Baranova
New Ohio Theatre – 154 Christopher St. New York, NY
Running Time: 100 Minutes (no intermission)
Thru March 11.