Thursday, February 19, 2009

Conversations On Russian Literature (Plus Three More Plays)


By Paul Johnston. Directed by Gary Shrader and Stephen Speights. Blue Coyote Theatre Group at the Access Theatre. (CLOSED)

While critics enjoyed the one-act that gives this evening of plays by David Johnston its title, they were generally less sold on the other three, or on the internal resonances of the quartet, if any. And though Back Stage's Robert Windeler was less enthusiastic about the evening, he singled out actor Frank Anderson, as a former Soviet apparatchik flirting with an American diplomat in the title piece, for an "astonishing" performance.

Blog Critics A-
(Jon Sobel) Conversations on Russian Literature has all the elements of the great suspense stories of our age: two characters sitting in a park talking...By itself, this play is worth more than the price of admission. Skilfully, with music-perfect pacing, and with huge help from two superb performances and Gary Shrader's subtle, unobtrusive direction, the playwright reveals who these players really are and what brings them to this strange crossroads...One needs only a dim awareness of recent Russian history to appreciate this tense, funny production, just as one doesn't need to be familiar with the works of Turgenev, Bulgakov, or Chekhov, all of which are referenced as these two unforgettable characters probe for each others' soft spots. While very intellectually and historically aware, this play stands on its own merits..

Theatermania A-
(Dan Balcazo) It's the intelligently written and superbly performed one-act play that gives the evening its name that makes the trip worthwhile...The work ultimately packs the punch of a political thriller while slowly unearthing the wounded humanity of its characters...Under Gary Shrader's crisply nuanced direction, the two actors play a game of cat and mouse, with the power dynamics constantly shifting...The curtain raiser, Play Russia, is a silly spoof on Chekhov that would be funnier if director Kyle Ancowitz was able to get more out of his three-person cast...The second piece, For Those of Us Who Have Lived in France, also directed by Ancowitz, is a puzzling trio of interlocking monologues...Far better is Mothra Is Waiting, a whimsical oddity directed by Stephen Speights.

Time Out NY B+
(Adam Feldman) David Johnston has quietly emerged as one of New York’s most engaging playwrights, often pricking tragic subjects with sneaky injections of needling wit. The four shorts that make up his new collection for Blue Coyote Theater Group don’t have much in common, but they’ve been stitched into a cozily crazy quilt...After intermission, Jonna McElrath and Frank Anderson spar compellingly as arms negotiators on a Moscow park bench in the lengthier Conversations on Russian Literature. Here the model is less Durang than Lee Blessing’s late–Cold War two-hander A Walk in the Woods, updated with smart literary allusions and a tough but good-hearted Southern woman. The tug-of-war, tug-of-heartstrings dynamics of the piece are somewhat stock, but well developed. When the lines are this good, it may be greedy to ask for more between them.

The New York Times B
(Jason Zinoman) The silly and the serious sit side by side in the new collection of plays by David Johnston, which leads off with this loony sendup that will greatly amuse any person who has ever held a strong opinion on the question of whether “The Cherry Orchard” is a comedy or a tragedy. There’s no dispute, however, about “Play Russia,” a broad one-act featuring many pregnant pauses and considerable tea-sipping...Mr. Johnston has a critic’s nose for cliché and employs it without a trace of shame or earnestness...“Mothra Is Waiting,” about two over-the-hill chanteuses, one of whom is sure that a fictional Japanese monster will rescue them from their dreary lives, is an endearing tale about show-business delusion...“Conversations on Russian Literature,” the last and best play, belongs to what might be the most hackneyed one-act genre: the park-bench drama (Edward Albee has much to answer for).

Backstage C+
(Robert Windeler) Sometimes all you can really hope to take away from an evening or afternoon at the theatre is the memory of one astonishing performance. Such is the case with this production of plays by David Johnston. In the two-handed 52-minute play of the title, Frank Anderson simply is the man identified only as Officer...Gary Shrader has directed his two actors in the only sensible way, with a minimum of physical movement within the setting and focusing on Johnston's language. Helena is nearly fluent in Russian, in which the two negotiators are meant to be speaking, but we hear unaccented American English. Perhaps Johnston should consider fleshing out this title play into two conversations in two acts, thus rendering his title more accurate and the convergence of the characters more credible. The three three-actor curtain raisers could be slotted somewhere else on another night.

Blog Critics A- 12; TM A- 12; TONY B+ 11; NYT B 10; BS C+ 8; TOTAL: 53 / 5 = 10.6 (B+)

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