All right, this is going to sound like heavy duty stuff—and, in a way it is, of course.
Central Works’ new play The Duel, skillfully adapted by local playwright Gary Graves from Chekhov’s story of the same title, is loaded with plot and action and drama. There’s plot here, people! Lots and lots of plot. Adultery, heartbreak, a life-threatening duel, rape—all presented by an absolutely first-rate cast of six actors playing eight challenging parts. Even Nietzsche and Darwin’s theories—new stuff in Chekhov’s time—find their way into the mix. They just don’t make plays like this anymore. And oh is it good to see one!
We’ve grown so accustomed to one- and two-person “plays” that it’s almost startling to be presented with a fully developed, multi-character, multi-faceted, comprehensible, drama. It’s enough to bring out the Luddite in us all.
Michael Cheng (Vanya) and Jennifer Fagundes (Nadya) do great work as the pair of illegitimate lovers (she’s married) at the center of the action. But this is far from the traditional story of heavy breathing anguish that we’ve encountered so many times. Chekhov concerned himself with the aftermath of their passion. The play takes place two years after the couple have run off together to set up housekeeping in a barren, isolated town. And the bloom is definitely off the rose.
By the time the play opens, Vanya is completely convinced that he wants out. Out of the relationship, out of his job, definitely out of the town. He is so ready to split that he’s more than willing to spill his situation to the tiny group of men who make up his only society. He has not, of course, mentioned his discontent to Nadya (who has some discontents of her own).
The way Vanya sees things, his only real problem is that he needs somebody to “loan” him some money to give to Nadya so that he can leave her with a clear conscience. He’s not quite enough of a cad to just abandon her with no resources. Jobs were in short supply for adulterous women in 19th century Russia. Women of any kind, for that matter.
His favorite candidate for the loan source is his friend and professional nice guy, Alexi (Richard Frederick) who never thinks to mention that he must borrow money himself in order to make the loan.
But things get increasingly complicated with serious friction between Vanya and the rational, totally “modern” Kolya (John Patrick Moore), leading to a life-threatening situation for Vanya. Nadya’s vulnerability as the town’s admitted adulteress is equally destructive to her.
Arguably, the only characters in the play who are left undamaged by the fall-out from the couple’s self-centered behavior are a rather simple cleric (Michael Shipley) who admits that he doesn’t really understand what he’s doing there, and a motherly—respectable—woman (Jan Zvaifler) who has befriended Nadya out of pity for her isolation.
The Duel is serious, of course, but it’s not a downer; and it’s not melodrama. Chekhov was far too creative to fall into such superficiality and this production is far too sophisticated to head in that direction. It should be mentioned that in addition to the actors’ strong performances, several are gifted with first-rate singing voices which are used to great advantage toward the end of the play.
While the material is old, this is actually a new play. All of Central Works’ plays are new. The hand-in-glove fit of the actors in their roles is more than good fortune: they’re selected before the play is written, and they then collaborate in the playwright’s creative process. It’s a method of play development based on the techniques of a British group called the Joint Stock Theatre Company of Britain.