It is not a contradiction to say that you have probably already seen "The Nest of the Wood Grouse" a dozen times already and that you have never seen it before.
On one hand, this domestic comedy, which opened Saturday night in the Eisenhower Theater, covers terribly familiar territory. Its chief concerns are the squabbles and misunderstandings in a well-to-do family that enjoys all of society's perks; and the inevitable generation gap between parents who nuture strong ambitions for their children, and children who regard their parents as relics. Broadway in the 1950s churned out hundreds of comedies on the topic; television still does.
On the other hand, "The Nest of the Wood Grouse" comes from the Soviet Union, where it is currently a hot ticket in Moscow. That makes all the difference and I suspect it is why the very familiarity of its concerns may strike you as enlightening and even original. We get precious little evidence on these shores of popular contemporary Soviet play writing, either because it's downright old-fashioned or top-heavy with political ideology.
But Victor Rozov, who wrote "Wood Grouse" and apparently enjoys the approval of the authorities, is actually looking at Soviet society today with a satirical eye. Granted, the satire is far from virulent, but it recognizes that the Soviet family can be as unharmonious as its American counterpart; that pulling strings and trading under-the-counter favors are everyday occurences; and that marrying the boss's daughter, as a tactic for getting ahead, is not limited to the snarling capitalistic marketplace.
Originally imported and directed by Joseph Papp last season at the Public Theatre in New York, "Wood Grouse" has been remounted for a five-week run here with its original stars -- Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach. They play the beleaguered Sudakovs. He is a big deal in the foreign ministry -- big enough, at any rate, to merit a luxurious six-room apartment in Moscow, to have had his picture taken once with Nixon and to receive a constant stream of visiting dignitaries, bearing gifts. It's a grand, puffy part for Wallach, who has always been able to take the biggest blowhard on the block and portray him with good-natured affection. Here he pulls in his chins, inflates his chest and carries on like a bullfrog on a lily pad that's about to capsize. The vanity and the impotence are masterfully defined.
Jackson's role, as his solid, commonsensical wife, is not so theatrical. But the actress finds a way to enrich a character, whose instinctive reponse to a crisis is to head for the kitchen to heat up a fish pie or brew a samovar of tea. She listens intelligently to those around her. Until matters get so out of hand that someone has to put a stop to the silliness, she doesn't have a lot to say. But in the interim, she knows how to pay attention and read the gathering signs.
Rozov has given her a lot to worry about. Her tussled son, Prov (Ricky Paull Goldin), has a streak of rebelliousness, a tendency to speak disrespectfully of the state, and a willingness -- in fits of pique, at least -- to ask God to strike his enemies dead. Her wan daughter Iskra (Pippa Pearthree) is stuck in a souring marriage and a tedious job, and, with two abortions behind her, seems to have had the last bit of spunk wrung from her spirit. Sudakov himself is no picnic. The quintessential big shot who pretends to rule the roost, he is forever toppling off his perch and then blaming his wife for the fall.
The only pride and joy of the Sudakov household would seem to be Iskra's husband, Georgy (Dennis Boutsikaris). A sleek go-getter in a three-piece suit, he's seemingly marked for the fast track. When foreign visitors drop by the apartment, it is Georgy who is shown off as the prize possession, before the icons in the library. Not too long into Rozov's play, however, some worrisome signs crop up. Georgy seems to demonstrate more than a scholar's interest in a young female student (Jodi Thelen), who wears pastel fashions and Christian Dior perfume. Nor is he above some behind-the-scenes manipulations of his own in order to ace out his father-in-law for a cushy job in the ministry.
Of course, the Sudakovs will eventually come to grips with this snake in their bosom. After all, the traditional happy ending, not to mention Soviet morality, must prevail. But Rozov views life in Moscow with enough humor and irreverence to avoid the charge of being a dramaturgical patsy. There are echoes of a latter-day Chekhov here and some of the gentle irony with which he contemplated mix-ups in Czarist society.
If the play sometimes tends to dawdle, it offers the consolation of a dozen characters. Among them: the foot-weary translator (Jacqueline Bertrand), who shepherds the foreigners through the Sudakovs' apartment; the fruit seller in the street (Rosemary De Angelis), who, it turns out, has strings of her own to pull in a crunch; and even Sudakov's childhood flame (Rebecca Schull), who, like all the others, has come to solicit a favor, although her crying jags almost prevent her from spitting it out. The action may grow stale periodically, but the faces are fresh.
Papp's discreet direction is content to let the play spring its surprises in its own good time. He doesn't force the evening's colors, but you are likely to come away from "Wood Grouse" thinking of it overall as a colorful evening. I especially relished the subtle treacheries in Boutsikaris' performance and the quiet intelligence that underlies Pearthree's dishwater appearance. But across the board, the performances are splendid and true.
As for the title, it derives from the curious idiosyncrasy of the male wood grouse, which undergoes temporary deafness during the mating ritual. In the Russian language, the term is applied to anyone who experiences selective hearing. Its appropriateness is obvious: Not just Sudakov, but just about everyone in the play hears what he wants to hear.
Exposing the self-interest of human beings may not be an earth-shattering event on the Western stage. Had "The Nest of the Wood Grouse" turned up in France, for example, I imagine Papp would have left it there. The Soviet theater is governed by such restrictions, however, that Rozov's comedy, mild-tempered as it is, qualifies as a kind of revelation.
THE NEST OF THE WOOD GROUSE. By Victor Rozov. Translated by Susan Layton. Directed by Joseph Papp. Scenery, Loren Sherman; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Arden Fingerhut. With Pippa Pearthree, Ricky Paull Goldin, Anne Jackson, Dennis Boutsikaris, Eli Wallach, Jacqueline Bertrand, Rebecca Schull, Jodi Thelen. At the Eisenhower Theater through Dec. 1.