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Review: Chekhov's 'Ivanov' vividly brought to life

Director Bart DeLorenzo's nimble staging and an enticing cast make this 'Ivanov' at Odyssey Theatre a winning exploration of confounding humanity.

April 18, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Barry Del Sherman and Brittany Slattery in Chekhov's "Ivanov" at the Odyssey Theatre.
Barry Del Sherman and Brittany Slattery in Chekhov's "Ivanov"… (Enci )

"Ivanov," the play in which Anton Chekhov was still testing the formula for his dramatic breakthrough, is usually revived in somberly autumnal shades. So the opportunity to see the play thrillingly brought to life in brazen color, courtesy of director Bart DeLorenzo, is one that no serious aficionado of modern classics should pass up.

A co-production between DeLorenzo's the Evidence Room and the Odyssey Theatre, where the show opened last weekend, this deliciously vivid, deliriously accelerated staging respects both the gravity and gaiety of Chekhov's 1889 play (nimbly translated by Paul Schmidt). Equally enticing, a stylistically synchronized cast, led by Barry Del Sherman in the melancholy title role, reveals just how deep Los Angeles' acting bench is.

Few Chekhov fans would call "Ivanov" their favorite, but the work nonetheless holds a special place in my critical affections. A study of a "superfluous man," a recurring personality type of 19th century Russian literature that today would be treated with a boatload of antidepressants, the drama lays bare the tolerant, though by no means uncritical, approach to character that would come to define Chekhov's playwriting.

Ivanov is a financially troubled provincial landowner married to a Jewish woman who renounced her family to be with him, but now finds herself more or less renounced by him. The plot centers on a question: Is Ivanov as much of a scoundrel as those around him contend?

His wife, Anna (portrayed in distinctive contemporary textures by Dorie Barton), is dying of tuberculosis, as the moralistic Dr. Lvov (an appropriately priggish Daniel Bess) keeps reminding her seemingly indifferent husband, who can't bear spending an evening alone in her company.

Despite Anna's entreaties, he dashes off to the Lebedev home, where tightfisted Zinaida (Eileen T'Kaye, hilariously petty in a caftan) pesters her put-upon husband, Pasha (an endearing John-David Keller), about Ivanov's debt to them and their infatuated daughter, Sasha (a cracklingly vivacious Brittany Slattery), dreams of saving this poor depressed visitor, who to her mind only needs the right woman to straighten him out.

Zinaida assumes, in keeping with the town gossip, that Ivanov married Anna for her money and when her parents withheld her dowry lost interest in her. This interpretation may suit the facts, but Chekhov is rather skeptical about those who make snap judgments about the labyrinthine reality of other people's motivations.

Ivanov is a psychological conundrum. How can such a seemingly sensitive man be guilty of such egregious insensitivity? Del Sherman wisely doesn't offer an answer. Instead, he makes us privy to the character's frustration with his own confounded plight. He cuts a dashing figure — there's a reason Anna and Sasha are both in love with him beyond their desire to save him — yet others understandably find his behavior unconscionable. What's clear is that no stereotype can adequately define him. He is for better or worse multitudinously human.

Frederica Nascimento's vibrant set updates the action in ways that capture the playful spirit of DeLorenzo's approach. "Ivanov" is by no means a farce, but it has a sense of humor, and the comedy is allowed to flourish, especially when Ivanov's uncle, Count Shabelsky (Tom Fitzgerald) comes barreling into the room like an old basset hound in search of a good time.

The melodramatic ending is something the playwright learned over time to resist. In perhaps his shrewdest tactical move, DeLorenzo doesn't allow the tragic conclusion to determine the overall tone of this staging. Death permeates the play, but so does life.

Productions of "Ivanov" have been few and far between. I recall seeing William Hurt in the role at Yale and Kevin Kline at Lincoln Center (ideal casting in both instances for a small-town Russian Hamlet). More recently, there was that deconstructed German production at UCLA Live's International Theater Festival in 2008, a mixed bag of bold acting and mind-numbing directing.

DeLorenzo's staging is not just the best work I've encountered by him but it also strikes me — presumptuously on my part, I'll grant you — as an "Ivanov" that Chekhov himself would have heartily enjoyed.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Ivanov'

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends June 3.

Price: $25-$30

Running time: 2 hours

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