Anton Chekhov wrote some truly great plays, among them Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. The Duel is not one of these plays. In fact it’s not a play at all, or wasn’t until now. Central Works’ Gary Graves adapted the script from Chekhov’s novella of the same name, through the collaborative workshop process the company uses to develop its plays. Graves, the actors, and director Robert Weinapple bring out the humor and horror in the material deftly, and the result is a delightful and at times shocking piece of work. Whether you call it a Chekhov play or not is really beside the point.
The story centers around Vanya Laevksy, a supposed civil servant who’s run off to a remote Black Sea town with another man’s wife, Nadya Fyodrovna. There he spends his days drinking, gambling, borrowing money, and plotting to leave her. He’s a scoundrel, a wastrel, and generally a real dick, but it seems as if his behavior is intended to be more shocking than it is. As played by Michael Cheng, there’s a frat-boy decadence to Vanya, and indeed his shiftiness is about what you’d expect of a college student with too many wild oats to sow. He comes off as an insufferable youth whom you hope will grow out of his self-indulgence sooner or later. He’s shifty, quick to lie, and quicker still to overdo repentance and self-abasement, always pining for Saint Petersburg and constantly comparing himself to great layabouts of literature.
“How like Hamlet I am,” he says, addressing an audience member directly. “Hamlet! Ah, Shakespeare.” When he nastily refers to Nadya under his breath as Anna Karenina, she asks him what he said, and he replies, “I said, ‘What’s for dinner?'” Their scenes together are waltzes of cruelty, he snappish and tender by turns, she sweet, tragic, and bewildered. There are times when it feels like Cheng is overdoing it a little, but because Vanya is such an overdramatic character it usually works fine. After convulsing in insane sobs of desperate laughter, he excuses himself by saying, “Well, this is the age of anxiety. What can we do?”
“Singing the praises of nature betrays a poverty of imagination,” he says to his friend Alexi, adding that to him “all of these mountains and trees are nothing but great dung heaps.” It speaks to Vanya’s Hamlet affectation to be sure, to Shakespeare’s talk of sterile promontories and congregations of vapors, but it’s far more telling than that. You find similar speeches throughout the darker side of literature, whether it’s Macbeth, Doctor Faustus, or Frankenstein — when one loses the ability to appreciate nature, one is truly lost. It’s intended as light banter, Vanya being contrary for its own sake, but it’s a good sign that there’s something very wrong with him.
As Vanya’s antagonist Kolya Von Koren, John Patrick Moore is urbane and immaculate in a khaki outfit that makes him look a little like the archetypal great white hunter, lacking only a pith helmet. He’s poised and urbane, maybe a bit of a prig — but a commanding prig. The first time we hear him talking smack about Vanya over vodka and radishes, about how he is a cancer on society and ought to be put down, he says it with a smile that makes it all feel like a joke. From what other characters say about him, it seems as if Von Koren is a cold, absolute Darwinist (almost always described in the text as a peculiarly German trait), but he casts his condemnations with a smirk that indicates it’s all a game to him, if increasingly a most dangerous game. It makes him a much more compelling character than if he were all Teutonic austerity, but it does make his intense dislike of Vanya as much a puzzle to the audience as to the enemies’ mutual friends, because both Vanya and Von Koren come off as careless creatures of whim.
It makes one wonder if perhaps he’s after Nadya himself, but he’s actually one of the few men in town who isn’t. The fire with which Von Koren pursues the inevitable titular duel — the program prominently features Chekhov’s famous comment, “I only know that if a gun is introduced in the first act, it will go off in the second” — feels even more senseless because it isn’t quite in character, and may be more chilling for that.
The motivations of Nadya’s friend Marya Konstantonovna, on the other hand, are clear as day. Jan Zvaifler plays her as the very embodiment of small-town high society, snobbish but drippingly polite, poised but high-strung — a jealous, judgmental busybody, always showing off her son’s report cards and offering free advice. It’s a standard device in 19th-century Russian literature to poke fun at high society’s overuse of French, but rarely is it quite so mangled and gratuitous as that of Marya: She knows a handful of French words, and uses them constantly and incorrectly. The seemingly inexhaustible stream of abuse she heaps on Nadya for all sins great and trivial is hilarious and earned Zvaifler a round of spontaneous applause upon her exit on opening night. (“God will punish you. You are marked. And your clothes are appalling!”)
Jeff Wincek’s sets and props are simply functional, not quite period but sold well by the performers. The men’s costumes are similarly utilitarian, though costume designer Tammy Berlin has given the women some striking gowns, and one of the dueling suits also makes a strong impression. There are some gorgeous moments with the actors singing and effective use of music throughout to underline suspense, sentimentality, or panic without clobbering you over the head with it.
Richard Frederick gives a solid, low-key performance as Vanya’s long-suffering and loyal friend Alexi Samoylenko, tolerant to a fault of his indulgences. “Well, if we catered to everyone’s prejudice,” he says when Von Koren objects to the unrepentant adulterers showing up at a child’s birthday party, “none of us would go anywhere.” Alexi is a doctor, but we more or less have to take his word for it when the best he can do to explain the death of Nadya’s husband by softening of the brain is to say, “It’s a disease. The brain … softens.” The same Frederick embodies cold menace as Nadya’s persistent pursuer Captain Kirilin, seldom seen but hard to forget. Michael Shipley is a charismatic void as the Deacon, an all-purpose sidekick basically just there to react to other people’s speeches; he does have a good moment when he bashfully tells Von Koren that he can’t attend the duel because he’s “in a state of grace,” but even that seemed a little funnier to the actors involved than it did to the audience. But Shipley is much more affecting in the very small role of Achmianov, the nervous, mousy shopkeeper’s boy.
Jennifer Fagundes is fantastic as the girlish and beautiful (and of course utterly shamed) Nadya Fyodrovna. At first she seems the very embodiment of the hapless tragic heroine, and in ill health to boot. But as the play goes on, we gradually see her as careless, naive, flighty, scheming, all too aware of her sexual power, and, in fact, conspiring to leave her lover just as he prepares to abandon her. We learn that she’s no less a creature of the moment than is Vanya: It’s just harder to see because she’s so luminous. It’s impressive that Fagundes makes all Nadya’s inconsistencies feel psychologically consistent, and interesting too that one is much more ready to forgive her trespasses, mostly because she’s so quiet about them and manages to make herself seem not entirely aware of what she’s doing, even when she’s manipulating others. Then, too, a pretty girl can get away with a lot in general, even in a play in which lessons are most decidedly learned.