Before Chekhov's name became synonymous with 19th century literary brilliance, the Russian writer made a decent living by hawking goofball comic sketches to various large circulation magazines. A fan of vaudeville and French farce, Chekhov also mastered the art of the one-act comedy. His one-act wonders aren't nearly as well known as his short stories or full-length plays, but they show off a deeply accessible facet of Chekhov's superhuman literary talents that isn't present elsewhere in his writing.
Chekhov considered all his plays to be comedies, in the broadest sense of the word, but these early, more commercialized farces truly are meant to make audiences laugh out loud. I might get shot for saying this, but his one-acts are something like the 19th century Russian equivalent of really good sitcoms—sort of like Seinfeld but with tweed coats and hunting dogs.
The first piece, “The Anniversary,” is the one clinker in the bunch, although Meg Connell does a swell job as the batty, fast-talking wife of a pompous bank manager, and Joann Danella-Alden plays a bossy, large-boned client to a tee. This one-act contains too much slapstick and not nearly enough of the smart Chekhovian wit found in the rest of the show.
The evening takes a welcome turn during the next farce, “The Dangers of Tobacco,” a tour de force featuring Ray Orley as a stammering professor who's supposed to deliver a lecture on the dangers of smoking but instead digresses endlessly about how much he and his wife loath each other. Orley has been excellent in everything I've seen him in. In this one-act, he's better than ever, sculpting a character with more subtle dimensions than any other figure in the show. Orley knows how to deliver a punch line, too—which never hurts.
After the intermission, we get “The Bear” with Connell returning as a self-pitying widow who's pestered by a local landowner (Michael Dolce) about a loan her dead husband owed him. Chekhov's dialog here is as sharp as a razor and it cuts into these characters at several points in this manic farce. The characters' bickering evolves into a heated argument that leads to a challenge to a duel, finally concluding in a somewhat predictable romance. The farce gets off to a slow start, but during the most heated moments Connell and Dolce inhabit their characters completely, circling each other like cannibalistic lions seeking the right moment to lunge in for the kill.
The final one-act is “The Proposal” in which a young landowner, played by Mike Apgar, comes to ask for the hand of his neighbor's pretty, hot-headed daughter (Irene Estrada). The nervous, wormy suitor gets most of the laughs in this piece. Apgar goes over the top at times, but this is farce, after all, and the performers make the most of Chekhov's ridiculous, lightning-fast dialog.
A versatile set and nifty period costumes add to the overall effect. All in all, Troika is a light, entertaining show. Swing by this North Valley theater sometime through Aug. 29 to see a side of Chekhov you probably won't witness again in Albuquerque for a long, long time.
Troika, a performance of comic farces by Anton Chekhov directed by John Puddington, runs through Aug. 29 at the Adobe Theater (9813 Fourth Street NW). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. $12 general, $10 students/seniors. 898-9222.