Someone in the annals of fiction must suffer a more wretched daily existence than the hollow-cheeked pensioner in Oleg Bogaev's "Russian National Postal Service" -- maybe that girl imprisoned in the serial killer's basement in "The Silence of the Lambs." But Bogaev certainly makes a strong case for penury and boredom as the ultimate tests of human endurance in this surrealist folk tale about surviving on physical and psychic crumbs in modern Russia.
Studio Theatre is bringing to Washington a full season of Russian theater -- new plays and classics alike -- and the American premiere of Bogaev's bleak comedy is a weird and disarming introduction. The piece, directed by Paul Mullins, is a mirror of the life of its reclusive hero, Ivan Zhukov (Floyd King); it's both whimsical and arid. At times you're delighted by Bogaev's flights of fancy, as when Ivan's drab flat fills with the grab bag of luminaries (Queen Elizabeth II, Lenin, a cosmonaut) who crowd Ivan's imagination. At others, though, attention tends to wander as Bogaev obsessively rounds the same thematic bend again and again. A playwright tackling the subject of emptiness has his work cut out for him.
Yet you're unlikely to feel the time invested in "The Russian National Postal Service" has been wasted. At 85 intermissionless minutes, the play is fairly brief and intriguingly offbeat, and it's refreshing to eavesdrop on a Russian dramatic voice that is not at least a century old. (Bogaev, 34, is in the vanguard of an emerging theater scene in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg.) And the voice is thick with a familiar leftover of the Soviet era: black humor.
The animating premise of "The Russian National Postal Service" is that in the newly liberated, economically deprived social order, everyone is free to create his own personal gulag. Ivan, retired from one arduous form of labor or other and receiving only enough in government benefits each month to buy a week's worth of food, confines himself to a musty city apartment. Set designer Debra Booth gets Ivan's shabby quarters to a Cyrillic T; they're made to look as if Russian housing allocations have not advanced one iota since "Doctor Zhivago."
Ivan's only entertainment is a bustling epistolary life that he carries on with a gallery of imaginary correspondents, old friends he hasn't seen in years, or world leaders he hasn't a chance of ever meeting. There are clear echoes here of Krapp, Samuel Beckett's lonely old man, crouched over a tape recorder, enraptured by the music of his own voice. As Ivan drifts into and out of sleep, the celebrities whom he imagines returning his letters materialize through walls and windows to debate the efficacy of capitalism or squabble over who is to get Ivan's meager possessions upon his death.
Ivan's recitations of the letters as he puts them to paper offer moments of lacerating self-deprecation; "Now," he writes, "I live my life for the fun of it!" But by the narration of the fifth letter, this grows tedious. Nothing like redundant stage behavior to take the place of a sedative. Mullins's direction is not always Bogaev's ally; the pacing is leisurely, and the intermittent encounters of the Queen (Catherine Flye) and Lenin (Tobin Atkinson) are more strained than funny. (Why, by the way, in a play set in the mind of a Russian, would Lenin have a cartoon Russian accent?)
King has been handed a bravura role in Ivan, and he plays the character's illness and exhaustion with a deadpan weariness. Clad in a plaid robe, he shuffles about the cramped room, his hands trembling, his eyes mischievous red saucers. It is King's tough job to mine some pretty thin running jokes for laughs; one of them has to do with the idea that the eccentric Ivan does not leave the house to mail the letters; instead, he turns various household items into mailboxes. This is the stuff of a gentle brand of humor, and King makes the best of any number of moments that might easily have been overplayed.
The flashy eye of costume designer Alex Jaeger has been unleashed to very appealing effect; among the visitors to Ivan's room are the beautifully rendered bedbugs and the space aliens with whom he also corresponds. The apartment is slowly transformed into an embodiment of Ivan's fertile brain -- it fills to capacity with the addressees of his letters -- and Mullins faces the formidable task of deciding how to move a dozen actors through the space. His timid approach results in a rather static tableau. One might have hoped for more slithering about, especially from the creepy bugs.
Bogaev's sensibility is informed by a Russian comic tradition that revels in the thumbing of the nose at authority and conformity, a history of subversive drama that stretches back to Gogol. It includes such satirists of the Soviet era as Nikolai Erdman, whose play "The Suicide" told of an unhappy man who becomes a hero when he declares that he is going to kill himself. "The Russian National Postal Service" is another twist on that theme, the story of a lonely citizen of the new Russia who finds that there truly might be a fate worse than death. Studio deserves a hand for giving it another life.
The Russian National Postal Service, by Oleg Bogaev; translated by John Freedman. Directed by Paul Mullins. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, Michael Gianitti; costumes, Alex Jaeger; sound, Neil McFadden. With Scott McCormick, Cecil Baldwin, Sasha Olinick, Roseanne Medina, John Collins, Amy Couchoud, Stephen Notes, Anthony Gallagher, Michael Wilson. Approximately 85 minutes. Through Oct. 17 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.