In Ivanov, by Anton Chekhov, Nikolay is a hot mess. He owes enormous debts. He no longer loves his wife, who is dying of tuberculosis. He wants to read alone, but neighbors keep badgering him. He's an opportunist, a bad investor, a gentleman farmer and a wayward husband. But he knows his failings, and Nikolay spends the entire play, from opening line to final blackout, openly chastising himself. He wallows in grief and self-hatred. Even his final gesture is a stupid cliche.
As adapted by Tom Stoppard, Ivanov is a comedy, but it's a malformed, egg-shaped comedy, both overlong and depressing. How long can you listen to a man berate himself before you want to blow your own brains out? Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre tests this theory, like a Russian social experiment, on its Chekhov Celebration audience.
And yet, haven't we all met Nikolay Ivanov? Isn't he our annoying neighbor? Our unemployable uncle? Our needy, Prozac-popping ex? Nikolay is the guy in the next cubicle, droning on about vacations in the tropics, though he'll never go. Meanwhile, we are the comfy judges, the gossiping townies. As Chekhov describes the world, there are sick people, and there are healthy people who secretly mock them.
Andrew S. Paul directs a lavish production, and if you can stand Nikolay's morose monologues, Ivanov is surprisingly funny. It's so rare, in Pittsburgh's black-box milieu, to see actual flats descend from actual fly space on actual rigging; Gianni Downs' set feels as decadent as the bourgeois card-playing in Scene 2. David Whalen is dependably strong as Ivanov, Martin Giles bittersweet as the emasculated Pavel Lebedev, and Leo Marks headstrong as Yevheny Lvov, the obnoxiously honest physician. The most entertaining role, and most Stoppardian, is Count Matvey Shabelsky, played with sardonic bluster by Alan Stanford.
A testament to the actors' integrity: Last Sunday, a bat descended from the Charity Randall Theatre's vaulted ceiling. It weaved through the crowd, glided between on-stage performers, and narrowly missed human scalps. The actors didn't flinch. Some pointed and shook their heads, as if the flapping chiropteran were just a wacky part of the show. Unlike Nikolay himself, comedy is about rolling with the punches.