When "Cerceau" opened in Moscow in 1985, it reportedly caused quite a stir because Soviet audiences were unused to seeing the meagerness of their lives addressed intellectually on stage. American audiences, unfortunately, may find a play whose underlying force is the lack of housing in the U.S.S.R. less compelling.
"Cerceau," which opened at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater on Wednesday, takes its title from an old-fashioned children's game, a pleasure that has evidently been lost in the endless struggle for survival that dominates the lives of ordinary people. The centerpiece is an abandoned country house, and the fact that the set, a house that should be dilapidated and dusty, looks as if it were built yesterday by Ryan Homes is indicative of the failings of the production as a whole.
The play, written by Viktor Slavkin and translated for Arena by Fritz Brun and resident dramaturg Laurence Maslon, concerns a weekend organized by a lonely 40-year-old engineer nicknamed "Rooster" (Charles Geyer), who rounds up a group of friends and acquaintances to visit the dacha he has just inherited from an aunt he never knew. They all arrive in one car, owned by the most prosperous among them, Pasha (David Marks), a college graduate with a degree in history who earns his living by upholstering doors. Yes, doors -- it seems that in space-crunched Russia, where people live squashed in tiny rooms in communal apartments, blocking out noise with upholstered doors is a big business.
This lack of space, of a place, fuels their lives. Rooster recalls a childhood spent in one room, sleeping in a cot that moved 3 millimeters every time his mother opened the wardrobe door. Nadya (Pamela Nyberg), the 26-year-old woman he chats with when they take out their garbage, contemplates marriage for the sole purpose of getting a place to live.
In one way or another each of the characters -- with the exception of Lars (John Leonard Thompson), a Swedish tourist whose marriage to a Soviet woman has failed because he wanted to stay in Russia and she wanted to escape to Sweden -- feels cramped, confined and isolated. They are forced to live intimately with people they despise and are unable to complete their own family cycles by marrying and having children. Their situation has produced an anomie more debilitating, it seems, than utter destitution would have. The space and privacy of the old house are so intoxicating that at the end of the first act all of them are dancing with abandon to the strains of American jazz.
One symptom they share is loneliness, and it is for this reason Rooster has brought them together. He has promised his boss, Vladimir Ivanovich (Jed Diamond), that Nadya has a crush on him and will be seduced "without work." Likewise, he told Nadya that Vladimir knows the intricacies of cooperative housing so that she can learn how to inherit from a relative the right to live in a particular apartment. He has inveigled his long-ago love, Valyusha (Randy Danson), and his friend Pasha with other vague promises. None is true; his real motive is to persuade them all to set up a communal household, to aid and comfort one another in a cold and uncomfortable world.
Aha! you may be saying at this point. A singles weekend! And indeed, there are elements of that, as the men eye the women and they flirt back. The flirtations are sexual rather than romantic, however, as if everyone has agreed that love is a luxury and the best you can hope for is some temporary but agreeable companionship. The love story that takes their fancy is an antique one -- that between Rooster's dead aunt and an aged man (Richard Bauer) who shows up with a frail claim to the house. The house guests read aloud (interminably) from a box of love letters written by the aunt to her "Koka," a voyeuristic pursuit that leads them to their own ruminations on love and friendship. But it turns out the lovers lived as man and wife for barely a week, because Koka left for work across the country and found another woman -- another love story turned to ashes.
But mostly they talk, and talk and talk. As in plays by Chekhov, they are full of bombast and hokey poetry, long speeches about lost love, abandoned dreams and failure. Unlike Chekhov, what they have to say is bereft of universal appeal. They drink strange red wine that leaves a bright crimson stain in their glasses, play Cerceau (a game with hoops and sticks) behind a scrim (why?) and have sudden crying fits. They entertain each other with songs and poems and Lars performs a hermaphroditic vaudeville act in which he is both man and woman.
In the end there is a sense they will return, and perhaps develop relationships that go beyond the self-protective exchanges in this play. But the possibility of a reunion is not the least inviting for the viewer. These people are querulous and (perhaps understandably) avaricious, depressed and hopeless.
Director Liviu Ciulei, who also designed the set, has made several confounding and uncharacteristically dull choices. Aside from the house, which hasn't a hint of age or history about it, the back of the stage is draped in what appears to be black plastic, giving a heavy aura of night and rain and all things gloomy, little of forests and open space.
The actors are trapped in an artificial style that precludes, for the most part, any empathy from the audience. That they are all well trained is too much in evidence, a problem the women in particular succumb to. Nyberg, the one so desperate for a place to live that she will marry whoever will provide it, looks disconcertingly like a recent graduate of Sweet Briar or a provisional member of the Junior League, with her perfectly groomed blond bob, Peter Pan collar and parka. Danson, a heftier and more Slavic-looking woman, shares with Nyberg a tendency to sound shrill and hectoring, although her underlying misery softens the sophisticated pose her character adopts. Bauer has a few moments of frail uncertainty as the old man, and Geyer is almost winning as Rooster, whom he plays as a kind of sweet nerd.
I suspect that in Russia this play resonated with the political climate and the immediate lives of the audience. Our lives are different -- whether better or worse is not the issue. Sometimes taking a play out of its context drains its blood; in this case the veins are all but empty.
Cerceau, by Viktor Slavkin, translated by Fritz Brun and Laurence Maslon. Directed and designed by Liviu Ciulei. Costumes by Marjorie Slaiman, lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Susan R. White; technical director, David M. Glenn. With Charles Geyer, Randy Danson, Jed Diamond, John Leonard Thompson, Pamela Nyberg, David Marks and Richard Bauer. At the Kreeger Theater through Dec. 2.