Anton Chekhov is as famous for writing pause-filled comedies about frustrated dreamers as Eugene O'Neill is for penning dramas with more stage direction than dialogue. Beyond their writerly quirks, however, both men were masters at creating unforgettable characters. And the Shadow Theatre Company's evening of one-acts pays homage to each writer in wonderfully comic and poetic ways.
Each of the two short pieces that are being presented at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center's tiny upstairs theater revolves around a single, dominant character. Both are directed by Shadow's artistic director, Jeffrey Nickelson, whose talent for drawing out the actors' best work is exceeded only by his gift for knowing when to stay out their way.
First up is Chekhov's The Evils of Tobacco, a 25-minute monologue that's about a host of subjects other than that of the play's title. As the lights come up on a bare platform with a single lectern, a distinguished-looking man enters and stiffly bows to imagined applause. Obviously ill at ease but compelled to make himself at home for his listeners' sake, Nyukhin (Dwayne Carrington) blusters through some prefatory remarks about tobacco's ills. Before long, though, he reveals what's really on his mind: He's deeply unhappy and would much rather fly into an unpredictable future than remain entrenched in his dreary present.
While the play's first few minutes feel a tad forced, Carrington gradually relaxes into the part and beautifully mixes poignant episodes with richly comic ones. Midway through, he lets us in on some of Nyukhin's secret longings, and we witness a soul trapped as much by lowered expectations as by society's conventions: "How I should love to forget, how I should love not to remember," he whispers, gazing heavenward as he throws open his arms. Moments later, he meekly begs for our support should his wife show up and ask any searching questions about how his "lecture" went. By that time, we don't want to let him go -- in true Chekhovian fashion, Carrington manages to convince us that there's infinitely more to learn about this plainspoken man than initially meets the eye.
Following a brief intermission, O'Neill's Hughie gets under way. For the first few minutes, it looks as though the leading character, Erie Smith (Kurt Soderstrom), will, unlike Nyukhin before him, end up telling us more than we want to know. Seconds after bursting into the drab lobby of the Manhattan hotel he calls home, the tomato-faced braggart strikes up a one-sided conversation with a bored desk clerk (Carrington). In due time, it becomes clear that Erie's endless boasts, jests and dusty reminiscences are his way of coming to terms with the death of the former desk clerk, and his supposed best friend, Hughie.
Soderstrom delivers a virtuoso performance that captivates our attention from an early line that says it all -- "Some drunk, geez," he sputters about his days-long bender -- and, save for a poorly orchestrated last couple of lines, holds us throughout. With all of Ralph Kramden's expansive largesse and Archie Bunker's blunt-witted pluck, the talented actor galumphs from this subject to that, earning a lion's share of laughter along the way. He also displays a firm grasp of Erie's reluctance to reveal tender feelings in too-obvious ways.
Erie's method of proving to the desk clerk how much he loved Hughie, for instance, is to regale him with the story of how, strapped for cash but determined to give his pal a proper sendoff, he hit up his fellow pony players for enough dough to buy a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of roses for Hughie's funeral. Recalling that Hughie's wife never approved of their friendship, Erie jovially admits that he might have gone too far by telling the young children stories about gambling's virtues -- and in the same breath shows his utter contempt for the woman by nonchalantly observing, "When you call her plain, you're giving her all the breaks."
Although the play is only 45 minutes long, Soderstrom's marvelous portrait covers a lifetime's worth of defeat, loneliness and fear. It's also full of eternal questions, such as what to make of oneself in life and how to reconcile ambition with self-acceptance. Combined with Carrington's nicely understated portrayal of the reticent desk clerk and Nickelson's atmosphere-setting appearance as a crooning barfly, O'Neill's minor masterwork -- a diamond among the rougher parts of a creative life that, by the playwright's own admission, began and ended in a seedy hotel room -- radiates with beauty and joy. It's the capper on a thoroughly entertaining evening that, from time to time, brings to mind the Great One's famous tag line, "How sweet it is."
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