Theater Reviews: ‘Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories’: Adaptations From Two Russian Greats

February 15, 2020 Updated: February 24, 2020
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NEW YORK—Can short stories morph into theatrical entities? British playwright and actor Miles Malleson has theatricalized two short stories by great Russian authors Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy. These are now being presented by the Mint Theater at its Off-Broadway venue in Manhattan.

By Chekhov

First up of this dual bill is “The Artist,” adapted by Malleson from Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” in which painter Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov) is seen practicing his art in the garden of a country house somewhere in Russia.

Nicov is interrupted by a lovely young neighbor, Genya (Anna Lentz), who waxes enthusiastically about the landscape on Nicov’s easel. Moved by her charm, the painter offers the painting to her as a gift.

Russian man and woman embracing
Genya (Anna Lentz) and painter Nicov (Alexander Sokovikov) see the importance of beauty in one’s life. (Maria Baranova)

Genya’s older sister Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) has a negative attitude toward art, considering it a useless pursuit. Strict and disciplined, she is self-supporting as a teacher, and devotes herself to social causes: helping the poor and seeing to it that the town’s schools and hospitals are kept functioning smoothly.

The girls’ mother (Katie Firth) leaves the running of their household to the dominant Lidia. Byelkurov (J. Paul Nicholas), owner of the nearby house where Nicov is staying, sometimes appears and spars intellectually with Nicov.

It becomes clear that Nicov and Genya are strongly drawn to one another and make plans to be together. Fate—or Lidia—(and Chekhov) intervene. The play’s ending is abrupt and startling.

While Nicov and Lidia spout their opposing views, it’s clear that these two major characters are spokespeople for Chekhov’s own political and social views. So we have a fascinating look into his concerns.

Chekhov (1860–1904), during his brief 44-year lifetime, wrote an astonishing multitude of short stories and many notable plays, including the masterful quartet of “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Three Sisters,” and “The Cherry Orchard.” Yet he found time to perform his duties as a medical doctor.

Under Jonathan Bank’s astute direction, the cast performs ably. A particular plus is the presence of Alexander Sokovikov, an authentic Russian actor, graduated from Moscow’s Russian Academy of Theatre Arts.

set and characters of Chekhov Tolstoy stories
Michael (Malik Reed, L) and Simon (J. Paul Nicholas) in a scene from “Michael,” based on Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By.” (Maria Baranova)

By Tolstoy

The next play “Michael,” adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By,” is in the style of an allegory.

A poor peasant shoemaker, Simon (J. Paul Nicholas), takes home with him a naked man he has discovered on the road. Simon’s wife Matryona (Katie Firth) at first objects to this deed, but she soon relents out of sympathy for the man, called Michael (Malik Reed).

Michael proves to be a godsend (in more ways than one, as we will discover). He is a master shoemaker and attracts a lot of business, making the couple prosperous.

It turns out that Michael is being punished, apparently by a higher power. However, odd events occur that enable him to redeem himself, and he can return to his rightful home—which is not of this earth.

Alexander Sokovikov plays a Russian noble who needs new boots, and Anna Lentz is his servant. A Woman is played by Brittany Anikka Liu, and it is a pleasure to see Vinie Burrows, who is in her 90s, acquit herself nicely as the servant Aniuska.

characters in Tolstoy's Michael
(L–R) Katie Firth, Vinie Burrows, J. Paul Nicholas, and Malik Reed in “Michael,” part of the Mint Theater’s world premiere of “Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories.” (Maria Baranova)

Sound designer Jane Shaw, a longtime colleague of Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank, acquits herself well here in her directorial debut.

Tolstoy lived to the ripe old age of 82 (1828–1910). He wrote a great number of short stories, some plays, and some novels. Arguably, he is best celebrated for his masterly novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” both known to millions via cinematic and televised versions. He is lauded for the Christian views that permeate his works.

Recommended for lovers of Chekhov and Tolstoy, and for anyone who views the theater as a place to think, as well as to be entertained.

‘Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories’
Mint Theater, Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., New York
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: March 14

Diana Barth writes for various theatrical publications and for New Millennium. She may be contacted at diabarth99@gmail.com