There is, according to playwright Anton Chekhov, a certain species of man “whose irony knows no bounds.” He’ll ridicule any poor wretch who crosses his path: a beggar, a woman on the verge of poisoning herself, God. Such is the moral temperament of Orlov, the chain-of-command government bureaucrat who stars in Chekhov’s 1887 novella, An Anonymous Story. Orlov is the son of an important politician, and a real cad, by 19th-century Russian standards. He lives on a tony estate and prowls around town with his best friend, Gruzin, while verbally abusing his mistress, Zinaida. Orlov took up his father’s line of work more out of self-interest than any heartfelt political conviction. He’s an atheist with no principles and no sense of purpose. To Chekhov, Orlov apparently symbolized a larger form of moral degeneracy in Russian society. He’s also a character with remarkable staying power.
So thought Central Works playwright Gary Graves, who adapted Chekhov’s story for a new stage production. As Russian novellas go, it’s a tough one. Graves had to compress huge amounts of time and space to fit a small stage and a two-hour format. He also had to soft-pedal key elements of the story. The “anonymous” narrator — who goes by the name Stefan — is a political reformist who takes a job as Orlov’s footman in order to spy on his father. In Chekhov’s version, he’s a consummate voyeur with clouded perception. He disdains Orlov and sympathizes with Zinaida. It’s never clear what faction Stefan represents, or why he’s been dispatched for espionage. If anything, Graves makes that part even more oblique. What stands out in his production is the domestic spat between Orlov (Jordan Winer) and Zinaida (Cat Thompson). Stefan (Richard Frederick) hovers in the background, but he seems like an ancillary component.
Luckily, Thompson and Winer are fascinating performers, even though they’re no match for each other aesthetically. She’s tall, red-haired, and vampy, and seems to tower over him at all times. He’s small, impish, and distinctly impertinent. Winer never quite gets to the sheer evil core of Orlov, but he does turn the character into a royal pain in the ass. He and Gruzin (the excellent Dennis Markam) spend much of the play ensconced in their armchairs, guzzling vodka, gorging on sandwiches, and disparaging Russian intellectuals. They’re a pair of rich Russian frat boys: unconscionable, soulless, narcissistic, all-knowing but poorly read. Zinaida is their intellectual foil. She plays piano, quotes Balzac, and frequently invokes Hamlet and Ophelia as a reference point for her relationship with Orlov. She tries to colonize the house, and fails.
With her severe red hair and steely bearing, Thompson is an odd — and oddly wonderful — choice for the role of Zinaida. She doesn’t elicit much pity, but neither does the character. Indeed, Zinaida spends much of the play trying to win a lover who doesn’t want her, with ever-diminishing returns. Thompson plays the mistress with a weird balance of outward coquettishness and inner fragility. Zinaida is morally inscrutable. She appears to have the same mercenary impulses as Orlov, who ensures her stature and finances her shopping sprees (she purchases a dress for 400 rubles). But she’s also miserable and put-upon, stuck in a house with a husband who disparages her and a maid (Sandra Schlechter) who steals her valuables.
Theoretically, An Anonymous Story isn’t just about bratty rich boys, or a woman who falls in love and gets jilted. It’s also a political play, filtered through the eyes of a fake-footman who abandons his mission when he falls in love with Zinaida. Frederick has the opening monologue and he steps in from time to time with little bits of exposition. For the most part, though, his character Stefan is more a piece of furniture than a narrator. He’s integral to the play, but it moves better without him. Director Søren Oliver achieves a sense of forward motion in the first act that seems to flag later on, when Stefan is suddenly allowed to commandeer the narrative. That authorial choice might work in the novella, but it causes the play to lose shape. It isn’t until Orlov re-emerges at the end that everything comes together.
An Anonymous Story obviously presented several challenges for Graves and Oliver, in terms of the narrative they had to condense and the themes they had to tackle. For the most part, they find ways to pack everything into two acts, and imply more space than actually exists. Central Works excels in this area. The two side doors allow characters to move about easily, and Graves’ lighting design can transform a space without necessitating other set changes (he creates the illusion of iron bars on the wall). Mostly, the success of this play owes to a few talented actors who gave their characters an extra layer of complexity. Orlov’s last line wraps it up perfectly. He’s a master of irony.