The notion of asking seven contemporary playwrights to produce variations on themes by Anton Chekhov seems at first like asking for combination-platter theater: a little bit of everything in one not-too-filling evening. But while "Orchards," the curious yet inventive program that The Acting Company opened last night in the Terrace Theater, sometimes strays so far from Chekhov's voice that you could be watching vaudeville, it also offers a number of daring and dramatic scenes.
All of the playwrights used Chekhov short stories for a springboard -- but some jumped off so far into the deep end that it would be more accurate to say that they maybe looked at his picture while they were writing. The evening starts very much in the Chekhovian atmosphere, however, with Wendy Wasserstein's touching piece called "The Man in a Case," which seems actually to be based on the story of the same name. It's about a balding, middle-aged bachelor and his playful, 30-year-old fiance', she delightedly in love and he resisting like a man holding his toe over icy water. She sees marriage as happiness and love; he sees it as a serious social contract. "Happiness is for children," he grumps, and scolds her for being so "progressive" as to ride a bicycle.
As the one-act play ends, it is clear that this will not be a marriage made in heaven, if it is made at all. And yet there is a sweet glimmering of hope. Brian Reddy and Mariangela Pino make a good couple, a contrast in light and dark.
David Mamet's "Vint" also has the Chekhovian ambiance: four Russian clerks are playing a peculiar form of bridge, using "identification dossiers" instead of cards. Their boss arrives and they are terrified of reprimand; Chekhov is very fond of the image of the humble man cowering before his better, who is often an inferior person. In this case the boss is seduced by the cleverness of the game, as the audience is seduced by the cleverness of Mamet's writing.
With "The Talking Dog" the evening begins to veer away from 19th-century Russia and, literally, out into the ozone. John Guare "adapted" a story called "A Joke" -- he must have walked by a copy of it -- by setting another story of thwarted feminine love on a cliff in the Catskills, where a handsome young man is trying to persuade an attractive young woman to jump off in a hang glider. The piece is beautifully balletic, with the two gliding through the air quite convincingly using only the help of two strong associates, four fans and a lot of light blue silk. The story is a commentary on the fickleness of modern romance, and once you get over the unexpected contemporariness of it, it's moving.
Possibly the most bizarre contribution is made by Maria Irene Fornes, who provides three scenes peopled by three men with grotesquely ugly faces, rolling jowls covered with warts topping rotund bodies. The masked and padded actors in "Drowning" spend two scenes in cryptic, rather boring exchanges, and at first it looks as if this is just going to be an absurdist exercise. But the two scenes are a necessary buildup to the final, wrenching moments, when one of the three dissolves in misery, a pathetic mound of terrible suffering. He pours out his wretched love for a woman who thinks he is as attractive as a "piece of meat," while he writhes like a walrus in despair and anguish.
Michael Weller's "A Dopey Fairy Tale" is exactly that, a smart-aleck fable that seems designed to get attention rather than demonstrate skill. It is mainly the costumes by Laura Crow that are memorable. And Samm-Art Williams' "Eve of the Trial" is Chekhov as low-rent Tennessee Williams, set in a sordid Louisiana swamp where a Russian exile faces hanging for marrying two whores at the same time.
Spalding Gray's "Rivkala's Ring" is a Spalding Gray monologue not done by Spalding Gray. Its main connection to Chekhov is that its first line is "The day the Chekhov story arrived in the mail." From there it goes on to create a wonderfully dense, typically Grayish stream of anxious consciousness. He somehow ties together dead rats and AIDS and Hollywood and love, and it all makes a weird kind of sense. Although actor Aled Davies is too actor-y for my taste, lacking the quizzical sincerity of Gray himself, the story is engrossing.
So whether you pick from Column A or Column B, "Orchards" offers a superior menu. You won't get indigestion.
Orchards, directed by Robert Falls, designed by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Laura Crow, lights by Paul Gallo, music by Louis Rosen. With Brian Reddy, Mariangela Pino, Craig Bryant, Terrence Caza, Joel Miller, Phil Meyer, Kevin Jackson, Aled Davies, Susan Finch, Michael McKenzie, Wendy Brennan and Laura Brutsman. At the Terrace Theater through Saturday.