A Tale of Two Plays: “Life & Fate” and “The Imaginary Invalid”

Last week-end I went to a theater twice and came out with the polar opposite emotions.  Both plays were period pieces, but this was the only thing they had in common.  In every other aspect they could not be more different.  The first play, “Life & Fate,” is based on what I consider to be the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century (“Life & Fate” by Vassily Grossman). 

It’s an epic tale that takes place in 1943, during the Battle of Stalingrad, and all over the world:  war zones, frozen Moscow apartments, Kremlin, “Wolf’s Layer,” factories, villages, concentration camps in Siberia and Germany, and so on, and so forth.  But the only epic feeling I was left with after I walked out after the first act was the epic feeling of shame.

The scope of the book makes it very difficult for conversion into a play, yet the playwright has managed to do it admirably:  almost every major story line of the book has been addressed.  The scenes are set up nicely, and they change into one another seamlessly (for the most part).  This, however, only exacerbated my agony, because, had the play been a complete waste, I would have forgotten it in a flash.  But it had the potential of being a masterpiece; instead it turned out to be a disgrace.  What killed it was the casting and the acting.


First of all, virtually none of the lead actors fit their characters.  The worst offender is the protagonist, a prominent Jewish nuclear physicist, Victor Shtrum, an archetypal example of Soviet intelligentsia.  He is played by Sergey Kuryshev, who looks and sounds nothing like any of these things.  Not a Jew (no matter how many times he proclaims he is), not a scientist, and certainly not a Soviet intellectual during World War II.  In fact, he could play Cossack Melekhov from “The Quiet Don,” Rogozhin from “The Idiot,” or Czar Ivan the Terrible.  He screams incessantly and lacks even a trace of gentlemanly conduct, normally associated with intelligentsia.  At times he resembles a brawler in a bar.  When he exclaims “The first genius of our time, Albert Einstein!” he sounds like a football fan, proving his favorite player’s merit to a fan of a rival club. 


Others are equally poor matches.  Shtrum’s mother (played by Tatiana Shestakova), reading her letter to her son from a Jewish ghetto, with her sugary delivery sounds like she is calming down a five-year old.  To my fellow Russians:  remember Mrs. Barrymore of “The Hound of Baskervilles” movie fame and her “Очень вкусная кашка, сэр Генри”?  That is how this strong woman, on the brink of destruction, is portrayed here.  Colonel Novikov has zero military poise (there is also a very odd moment when he forgets to put his underwear back on before storming out of Zhenya’s bedroom to command his troops).  Shtrum’s daughter, Nadia, has zero teenage charm and sweetness, and it’s not a question of “character interpretation”:  her delivery is in total conflict with her lines.


Everything else follows suit.  Not only the actors don’t fit their roles, but there is falsehood in their delivery of an otherwise powerful text.  Their intonations are wrong, their emotions – incredible, their behavior – absurd.  People in Stalin’s Russia didn’t scream “I’m going to see my husband on Lubyanka!” for all their neighbors to hear!  Goners in prison camps didn’t shout at the top of their lungs: every time they raised their voice, their lifeblood drained.  I haven’t sensed any trepidation in a goner Abarchuk when he was addressing thug Barkhatov (and there should have been plenty).  Btw, Barkhatov and the truck driver are the only people who fit their profiles and act credibly (until the latter yells “You are Jews, but still nice people,” loud enough to be heard in hell and heaven).  Hysteria seems to be the modus vivendi of the contemporary Russian theater: virtually every play I saw in recent years featured prominent screaming.  The entire first act of “Life & Fate” is an hour-and-a-half-long shouting match (and after that, as I mentioned previously, I walked out).  At first, the women on the stage, Shtrum’s wife Lyuda and her sister Zhenya, seem relatively tame (and therefore – more believable), but soon they fall under the universal spell of hysteria and start screaming and stripping.  Every time an actor would open his mouth, I would cringe from both the volume and the phony, implausible emotions.


One particularly nauseating aspect is the Jewish theme.  In the novel it is present, but not dominating.  But apparently this production was conceived as an export item (it premiered in Paris and then shot off), seeing its target audience as nostalgic emigrants, primarily – Jewish.  Consequently, the Jewish theme is bloated and firmly occupies the spotlight.  Its execution is hideous:  the freilach dance, indicating Shtrum’s “return to his roots,” is danced by half the cast, not once, not twice, but three times in the first act alone!  Of course, this is not found anywhere in the novel, and it could not be.  First of all, the novel is strongly international, in a sense that it denounces fascism (German and Soviet) as the enemy of all people and all nations.  But, more importantly: to even imagine a typical, sane Soviet family, prancing around and loudly proclaiming their “Jewishness” is outrageous (had they been overheard, it would surely mean an arrest).  Three times in one act?!  It’s a logical exclamation point to this abomination of a production:  not only it’s completely unrealistic, but the delivery carries no subtleties, no hints, and no nuances.  Everything is a bludgeon, a hammer in your face.  Finally my face took too many of them, and I left.  I am happy to report that, even though there was some inexplicable applause, more than a few people left as well.  In fact, not only I have left, but went straight to the nearest bar, where I downed four whiskeys in rapid succession (it should say something to those that know me).  “Terrible” doesn’t do this pompous and incompetent work justice.  It was my worst visit to a theater ever, surpassing “The Past is Still Ahead” from two years ago.  Then only one actress insulted my senses and sensibilities, now the entire cast did.  Ranking:  D


On the next day, my faith in theater (albeit not the Russian theater) was restored.  I saw the Off-Off-Broadway production of “The Imaginary Invalid,” a modernized take on Molier’s comedy, in The Cell Theater (9th Ave & 23rd St).  And it’s as if I traveled to a different world:  everything – almost – that was wrong with “L&F,” was proper and enjoyable here.  The only thing kept from the Molier’s original was the plot.  The whole dialog has been rewritten, to make the play more relevant.  It works beautifully:  the script is witty, funny, and sharp.  Molier’s 17th century attack on medical quacks and charlatans becomes an ironic depiction of our nation’s current problem with medicine.

This could not have come at a better time, considering our country’s #1 issue at the moment.  Argan, a hypochondriac rich old man, played by Jeremy Lawrence, is a perfect illustration of our pill-popping culture, and the actor’s execution is right-on-target hilarious.  A flock of medical workers around him probably haven’t changed much in three centuries.  Everybody else – a predatory young wife, her notary lover, a confidante maid, a caged daughter, her proposed fiancé (a nerd, who walked straight off the “Saved by the Bell” sitcom set, brilliantly played by Kyle Haggerty), her romantic interest that speaks in trivialities (once a maid tells him to “stop reciting classic rock”) – is a typical roster of a classic comedy, and everybody fits his/her character and plays his/her part well.  The only misfit is the protagonist’s “voice of reason” brother, whose part was completely rewritten, because, by director’s admission, his ideas protesting against the medical charlatans, in our day and age would resemble those of Christian Science.  As a result, his part feels a little forced, and the actor that plays him is not convincing.  The main character’s younger daughter also seems unnecessary, although she runs around with a broomstick, playing Harry Potter, which is always near and dear to my heart.  Other than that, it’s a feast of laughter, but at the same time it raises some important questions.  Definitely recommended.  Ranking:  A-

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