Vicki Paris Goodman
Who knew Anton Chekhov had written comedy? His famous full-length plays are all examples of drama at its most serious. With G.B. Shaw’s The Philanderer on The Mainstage, and now Chekhov’s The Bet, The Bear and The Proposal in The Studio Theatre, the Long Beach Playhouse has offered up some rare opportunities this year to see lesser known works by great playwrights. How exciting!
Chekhov Shorts, as directed here by Diane Benedict, imaginatively melds comedies The Bear and The Marriage Proposal within the time frame contrived by the far more serious short play The Bet. Hence, we have the two unrelated comedies each performed in their entirety within the fragmented performance of The Bet. The concept is ingenious and works beautifully to facilitate the passage of time The Bet requires while limiting the disturbing mood the more serious play engenders.
The Bet, presented in three segments that bookend the overall performance and separate the two comedies, is so reminiscent of the ironic twists one would find in a story by O. Henry that I was prompted to Google both authors to see who might have inspired whom. Wouldn’t you know the two were contemporaries, of course one in Russia and one in the U.S., neither of whom made it to age 50 due to poor health. It seems doubtful that either could have influenced the other. Amazing.
In The Bet, a wealthy banker (Floyd Riggle) disagrees with a young lawyer (Mike Dazé) about which is worse, the death penalty or life imprisonment. In the course of the argument, the younger man volunteers to spend 15 years in solitary confinement in the banker’s home in exchange for the banker’s fortune at the end of the term.
One can imagine all kinds of surprising endings to The Bet, perhaps even the one that Chekhov wrote. The ending we get is thought-provoking in a lasting way, in part because of its lessons about greed and what gives life meaning, and in part thanks to Dazé’s powerful performance of his character’s almost thorough transformation and enlightening monologue.
The Bear and The Marriage Proposal, on the other hand, are unusual comedies made far more humorous by the exaggerated physical manifestations boldly and brilliantly executed by the tremendously talented casts.
Everything from pratfalls to telling facial expressions to happy dances combine to make the players’ conflicts, shortcomings and raw emotions unmistakable.
The Bear depicts a “faithful” widow (Andrea Gwynnel Morgan) attempting to manipulate her deceased husband’s creditor (Timothey Fitzgerald) who wishes to be paid his due. After the two have thoroughly and deliciously denounced one other, almost resulting in a duel of pistols, they each have a sudden change of heart. Loren Bidner expertly manages the physically demanding role of the widow’s hapless and cowardly servant.
The Marriage Proposal finds a tall, young gentleman (Brett David Williams) asking his neighbor (Jeff Asch) for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The height difference between the two men is comical enough. To top it off, Asch’s character dances his enthusiasm with such glee that we wonder why the young man doesn’t exit at the earliest opportunity. To our amazement, he stays his resolve to be wed, and his intended (Sarah Klein) is summoned to join the men. Husband-to-be and bride-to-be argue at every chosen trivial subject of conversation in what becomes a verbal battle to exhaustion.
The Long Beach Playhouse’s Chekhov Shorts is 90 minutes of sublime emotion, comedy and life lessons. It is an extraordinary chance to see another side of Anton Chekhov and is well worth the price of admission.
The Chekhov Shorts continue at the Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through July 12. General-admission tickets are $24, senior tickets are $21, and student admission is $14 with ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. For reservations and information, visit lbplayhouse.org or call (562) 494-1014, option 1.