Pushkin is a new play housed within the eclectic interior of The Sheen Center. It’s written by John Leaf and Directed by Christopher McElroen, running through August 25. If you’re a fan of Russian literature or curious about Alexander Pushkin’s entangled life and untimely death, you may want to see this misshapen production. At first glance it appears a collection of very good artists. But as the play drags on we quickly wonder how the production managed to become less successful than it should be.
At its core, the play surrounds the final two hapless years of Pushkin’s life as it collapses around him. His marriage is deteriorating, he lives in uncertainty with the Tsar and consequences from gambling and dueling are catching up to him. The play follows Pushkin, marching steadily toward his own demise. These historical realities serve as plot points.
Alexander Pushkin was a poet writing in verse and Pushkin is in verse. The similarities end there. John Leaf’s play lacks the energy verse is meant to inspire. It is devoid of rhythm and (despite the heightened historical circumstances) any emotional immediacy. While watching the show, I was constantly surprised how often dialogue sounded conversational. One could reformat the entire play into standard prose sentence structure and, because its poetic structure is so underdeveloped, few would notice any difference. And yet, it’s written with talent.
Despite an ensemble stacked with accomplished actors, we are presented one-note, two dimensional characters. The always irritated Tsar Nicholas I (Gene Gillette), who even at his own ball never ventures beyond a distinct perimeter of anger. Gogol (Kyle Cameron), the respectful companion. The diabolical Count Benkendorf (Lou Liberatore), without nuance or redeeming quality. And Pushkin, mutton-chop-masculine and entirely detached from any emotional consequence, including death. Yet, each actor is talented.
The Director is decorated. He has Drama Desk, Obie, Lucille Lortel, American Theatre Wing Awards. He’s given the opportunity to tackle a play about one of the most influential artists ever while supported by an outlandishly talented ensemble. And yet. There is no dynamic variation in tone from one scene to the next, lacking any semblance of an arch. Like the play’s actors, the production maintains a never-changing single note of mundane emotions from a script dealing with the highest stakes possible, life or death. And still, it’s conducted with talent.
An effective set built by Troy Hourie provides a potent atmosphere of Russian nobility. Costumes (Elivia Bovenzi) and props (Leila Ben-Abdallah) are both detailed and precise. Even a deck of playing cards with a shade of energetic orange reveals a historical nuance. However, the dress of Alexandra, although designed to clearly differentiate her from her sisters, appears homely and out of place while attending the Russian Tsar’s ball. Lighting by Zach Weeks balances and enhances colors on stage and at times shifts us into the fantastical. Even the stagehands come from the Flea Theater’s renowned Bats program.
Here’s why I think the play was unable to succeed. I think the director utilized a technique to engage verse and support his actors. But the script’s verse structure wasn’t heightened enough to support his technique. So instead of enlivening performances, it succeeded only in emphasizing bland verse, bland characters and flattening out the story arch. Alternatively, they could have simply run out of time to develop the necessary emotion and nuance.
I think the deeper problem lies in our current system of commercial theatre. Our system doesn’t allow for mistakes. Show-business people have schedules. And I guarantee each person on stage has an upcoming project. And I know they had projects before this. So the question becomes, is this really a worth-while priority for all artists involved? Or is this a paycheck. Is this a project these artists actually want to see properly accomplished? I find it interesting that The Sheen Center did not produce this play. Instead, the website given is the director’s. And listed among his current shows and successes, this production is coincidentally absent.
I think this play should be performed because I think the core is good. And I think these actors are good. And I think this director is good, even if he’s ashamed of his work. But it should have been worked on and developed until it was as emotionally affecting as the realities demanded by the script. It shouldn’t be just a paycheck or a side job ‘til Broadway calls again. It should be what its core story intends. An homage to and a lesson from one of our finest artists, which deserves our finest artists’ respect and dedication. Or they shouldn’t do it. In a play about stifled artistry, we are given a shockingly accurate parallel with the handling of this production.