St. Louis Actors' Studio Delivers a Smart, Funny Ivanov

Apr 20, 2016 at 6:00 am
The cast of St. Louis Actors' Studio's brilliant Ivanov.
The cast of St. Louis Actors' Studio's brilliant Ivanov. JOHN LAMB

Ivanov is the most irritable man in Russia, and perhaps the planet. He rails at his employee Borkin (David Wassilak) for interrupting his reading, he barks at his wife Anna (Julie Layton) for politely asking if he could perhaps stay home tonight just this once, and he even snarls at dear old Count Shabelsky (Bobby Miller) for being too negative in his assessment of the neighbors. And yet all these people evince a definite fondness for Ivanov, who they claim was once an easy-going gentleman farmer destined for greatness.

Anton Chekhov's Ivanov is a puzzling play. The main character is either terminally depressed or neck-deep in a mid-life crisis that can't be solved by a sports car, but only because it's 1889. What the hell happened to him? Even Ivanov can't puzzle that one out, and it's killing him. In the new production by St. Louis Actors' Studio, Drew Battles plays him with an enervated lassitude. He never sits but sprawls, eyes fixed on nothing in particular, as he struggles to understand the void inside himself.

Ivanov has his reasons for depression. His marriage is a shambles, he owes a fortune to Zinaida (Teresa Doggett), wife of his best friend Lebedev (B. Weller), and his farm is falling apart. Rather than do something to forestall any of these disasters Ivanov chews over the issue of his ennui and self-loathing, creating a black hole of doubt and self-destruction that he'll never escape.

But Ivanov's black hole draws you in as surely as it attracts the characters in the play, making him appear mysterious to the young and a figure of fun for his peers. Director Wayne Salomon and set designer Patrick Huber fix Ivanov at the center of everyone's universe. The intimate Gaslight Square stage is walled with naked timbers and blue neon light tubes; cast members line these walls when not in a scene, watching from a safe distance as Ivanov destroys himself. It is a production that is compelling and accomplished, driven by outstanding performances from the whole cast and a propulsive sense of inevitability. Chekhov's gun is hidden in plain sight so you know how this will end, but you still can't look away, even for a second.

It sounds grim, but it's not. Borkin is an endless font of criminal schemes that he believes could ease Ivanov's financial burden, and Wassilak declaims them with the pompousness that only a man who wears jodhpurs can possess. The Count is a wild-eyed crank who insults everyone with equal glee, much to their embarrassment (but never his). Lebedev is a happy, rich drunk who fears his mercenary wife and doesn't understand his daughter, Sasha (Alexandra Petrullo), who is infatuated with the brooding Ivanov. With these as his peers, is it any wonder Ivanov is miserable?

In fact, Ivanov could be a comedy if not for Anna, who is tragedy incarnate. A Jew who abandoned her faith and family for a dynamic man who no longer exists, Anna is now dying of tuberculosis and she doesn't even know it. Ivanov won't tell her, and her doctor (Reginald Pierre) is a pompous prig who doesn't think it's his place to break the news to her. Instead, the good doctor endlessly berates Ivanov for not doing more to comfort Anna, which Ivanov agrees is another of his moral failings.

Things only get worse when Anna catches Ivanov kissing Sasha in her own home. Layton drops like she's been pole-axed — audience members leaned forward protectively, fearing for her safety. And even after death claims her, Anna is put-upon by Ivanov: When Sasha changes into her wedding gown, it's Anna who helps her into it. Poor Anna. Ivanov really is a shit.

What's most remarkable about the play as a whole is how modern it feels. Characters warn about the dangers of bankers speculating on the economy, the older generation complains about the younger generation, the wealthy members of society do nothing but gossip at parties, and Ivanov — the economic engine of the community — can't pay his bills and can't make a decision about anything. Whatever is broken inside Ivanov is as familiar and as ravenous as the banality of evil. Drew Battles' Ivanov may eat himself in slow motion, but he makes an incredible meal of it.