NEW YORK — The foibles of human nature haven't changed since Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's time.
Also a prolific author of short stories, Chekhov gently satirized his often-flawed human subjects. By turns foolish, lovesick, melancholy and sometimes cruel, his nineteenth-century characters were men, women and children from all classes who sometimes got in their own way, inadvertently sabotaging their own desires.
Melania Levitsky has adapted nine of Chekhov's better-known stories from the translation by Constance Garnett, creating a comedy called "Chekhovek" that opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at the ArcLight Theatre. The authentically rustic, well-acted show, which Levitsky also directs, is presented by The Actors' Ensemble and GoShow Entertainment.
The former title of the production, "Virtue, Desire, Death and Foolishness," is a good description of the topics covered by this selection of Chekhov's emotionally complex tales. Fourteen scenes are animatedly narrated and enacted by five actors, Eddie Allen, David Anderson, Elizabeth Fountain, Rob Leo Roy and Celia Schaefer. Musician Jonathan Talbott plays folk music that he composed for the show.
The cast portrays a troupe of actors performing in an old theater, pulling props and costumes out of trunks and dressing one another onstage for scene changes. Schaefer gives a poignant intensity to her portrayal of the unhappy, obedient title character in "The Chemist's Wife" who gradually opens up to experience delight and giddiness in the unexpected late-night company of two comically drunk officers, (Allen and Roy, buffoonishly funny).
As adultress Anna in "The Lady with the Dog," Schaefer is also appealingly conflicted. Allen plays her married lover, Gurov, with increasing romantic feeling, as that story unfolds in recurring vignettes throughout the production.
Anderson often wears a wry, impish look that perfectly suits the parts he plays, which include the earnestly foolish, doomed functionary in "Death of a Government Clerk"; a reluctant suitor trying to avoid getting trapped into marriage by his girlfriend's scheming parents in "A Blunder," and a mad philosopher made increasingly ecstatic by speaking with a ghost who obligingly parrots his thoughts, in "The Black Monk."
Some of Levitsky's selections are more melancholy than comical, as in "Vanka," wherein a sad little boy (expressively portrayed by Fountain) writes a desperately hopeful letter that may never reach the person he thinks he's sending it to. Similarly, the absent husband in "The Huntsman," given an air of pompous disdain by Roy, is casually cruel to the pleading wife (Fountain) he has long abandoned, and her hopeless situation just seems sad.
Levitsky ends the production on a hopeful note, as the entire cast recites a coda about the colors of an "enchanted sky." While social circumstances and technology have changed the way people look and talk and interact, the basic emotions Chekhov depicted with such gifted, thoughtful observation remain the same. Seeing and hearing his work performed with the authenticity provided by this talented troupe is a treat for lovers of great literature, and for anyone who enjoys a good story or two.