Anton Chekhov's first play, Wild Honey, is raucous, intermittently charming, sometimes scathing and terribly clunky--the original is said to take six hours to perform. This production by Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre is the short version, translated and adapted by gigglemeister Michael Frayn (Noises Off). But while Hunger Artists does a creditable job with the redo, no six-hour play can really be reduced effectively to two.

The play foreshadows many of the most important themes of Chekhov's later, greater works, but it has none of the depth of his best. The action takes place during a hot summer on the heavily encumbered estate of Anna Petrovna, who protects herself from both the devil and the deep blue sea with an amazing balancing act: She keeps two rich suitors hopeful and jealous of each other. Her creditor doesn't foreclose, thinking she will marry one of the suitors eventually and pay back the money she owes. But Anna cares only about her dalliance with a third man, the handsome, utterly irresponsible Misha Platonov, who seduces women for the sheer sport yet still loves his simple wife, Sasha.

Anna's son, Sergey, has returned to the estate with a new wife, Sofya, who once was in love with Misha, and when Platonov lays eyes on Sofya, old sparks fly. Poor Sergey. Meanwhile, the local doctor loves Marya, a mousy friend of Anna's. Then there's Osip, a horse thief and murderer who adores Anna and lusts after Platonov's guileless Sasha.

All these characters gather at the estate, delighted to have Anna among them after a long absence. Their lives are dull without her, and they need her lively spirit. Anna, though, is overeducated and underemployed, and it's killing her.

The sexual chasing that goes on in this play is really about wasted energy that should properly be invested in some important life work (a recurring obsession of Chekhov's). In the beginning, all the relationships are checked and balanced by the restraints of social decorum, but the story quickly degenerates into a running farce as the characters get drunker. The playwright's trademark comic melancholy disintegrates until not even the characters' despair seems genuine. We like all of them at first because they are interesting, kindly, flawed human beings. But in the end they've become so ludicrous that they've lost their humanity: Nothing they do could possibly matter, not even suicide or murder.

David Knudten plays Platonov as a boyish scoundrel and makes us feel that he might be a decent human being if only he had some worthy outlet for his intelligence. TJ Geist, normally a wonderful presence on stage, is less than exciting as Anna; there are too many false notes in her character's relationship with Platonov.

Angie Lee as Sasha and Chuck Muller as one of Anna's courtly suitors both sparkle in their roles as inconsequential plot thickeners. Frank Oden bumbles delightfully as Anna's other silly suitor, while Kevin Stephens gives Sergey a sweet ineffectuality perfect for the role. As Sofya, Yvonne Marchese is appropriately insensitive, self-centered and self-deceived--a brainy woman with no common sense or kindness to sweeten her disposition.

Director Joan Staniunas keeps the energy high and the actors moving here. But what she ends up with is a breathless, dizzying production of a play that's more interesting as theater history than as theater. Wild Honey was found locked away in a Moscow safe-deposit box; maybe it should have stayed there.


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