DUCK HUNTING: Through June 11 at the Arena Stage.
The Russians invented the play in which the chief character spends at least three hours going crazy with non-specific desperation, in contrast with his peculiar but still-functioning society, until a grand climax in which he dramatically decides to do nothing but continue going on as before. The newest of these is "Duck Hunting," by Alexander Vampilov, which is having its first English-language production at Arena Stage.
Russian-literature fans will already have guessed that the duck-hunting season is that great goal, just out of reach, which will restore the soul and sanity of the one who can't take it any longer in daily life. They will be correct.
But something funny seems to have happened to daily life in Russia since Chekhov. Vampilov's unhappy hero, an engineer named Zilov, is not reacting against a decaying, genteel society but against one in which the greatest reward, for which one must spin out one's life at a gray desk, wearing stringy black suits and white shirts, is to get one's very own, cramped, badly constructed apartment.
Zilov is not reacting against a dreary or harsh life, however. In fact, he has made things quite jolly for himself with his tricky charm and unpleansant maneuvers at the expense of people who have been good to him. Stanley Anderson does an amazing feat by portraying this character so that one cares whether he lives or dies while still wondering why those he mistreats care. These other characters - Zilov's wife, two mistresses, a business associate and his wife, his boss, a waiter with whom he hunts - are well played, but have been written to portray a somnolent society in contrast with the raging Zilov. This is entirely his play, about his rage.
And it seems to be that same late-19th-century Russian rage, hardly touched by social upheavals. Perhaps a greater change is that American theater is now in the throes of exploring the great personal, vague, anti-social depression, and here is an example of how that kind of thing can be done well, with great symbolic birds overhead, a chorus of figures demonstrating how sad acceptance is, and a great fireworks of torment in the center.