The idea is one of the best in years: Ask seven established American playwrights to look at seven of Chekhov's short stories and adapt them for the stage. One apiece, of course.
The happy result is "Orchards," a collection of one monologue and six short plays--some very short--commissioned by the Acting Company and opening a three-night stand tonight at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater.
Goodbye Chekhov. Hello Maria Irene Fornes, Spalding Gray, John Guare, David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Weller, and Samm-Art Williams.
The strength of this program lies in the individuality of the chosen playwrights. Chekhov's presence remains keenly felt in only two of the transmogrified pieces: Wasserstein's adaptation of "The Man in a Case," a brief, bittersweet lesson in how to plan a bad marriage--and Williams' broadly farcical "Eve of the Trial." The latter is a tall tale of outlawed strangers, bombastic lawmen, loose bowels and loose ladies, whose locale is merely removed to Louisiana. It reminds us once again of the easy correlations between 19th-Century Russia and the colorful American South.
The balance of playlets reflects the Americans' idiosyncratic writing habits more than the original author's vestigial presence.
This is all to the good.
Unexpectedly, "Orchards" turns into a very American evening, with a lively contemporary feel, written in a wide variety of styles that never coalesce but manage to nicely complement one another. Nothing deep, mind you, but plenty of easy, yet literate entertainment that this young company--younger than ever, it seems--is abundantly able to carry off. If the program errs at all, it's over length.
Six plays might have been enough, and the placement at the end of the program of supreme monologuist Spalding Gray's "Rivkala's Ring," (which uses Chekhov's "The Witch" as the merest of springboards for its own fantastical divagations) is a mistake.
We are, by then, in need of something breezier--something on the order of Michael Weller's "A Dopey Fairy Tale" (very loosely based, says he, on Chekhov's "The Skit"), which closes the first half of the show. This is a hilarious sendup of sad princesses, frog queens and kings, talking dogs and happy bakers. Transposing the Weller and the Gray--or the Williams and the Gray--is worth considering.
For the rest, "Orchards" shines brightest at its briefest. Mamet's "Vint," from the short story of the same name, is a virtual cameo about a bunch of bureaucrats who lighten their day by playing a game of cards (vint) using the personal files in their care. It closes with an official who, overhearing his wife's name in the bidding, takes the sort of action one might least expect.
Guare's "The Talking Dog" (adapted and updated from "The Joke") is a pure expression of this writer's cockeyed sense of humor. He turns the personal peregrinations of two hang gliders, male and female, into an astute pas de deux that covers the entire range of the sexual revolution. Much credit here also falls on director Robert Falls who has used the simplest of staging devices to lend effectiveness to this exquisite idea.
Of all the pieces, Maria Irene Fornes' succinct "Drowning" is the moodiest and, emotionally, the most mysterious and arresting--in keeping with her elliptical kind of theater language that always speaks volumes. The gentle treatment of grotesquerie in this one is unforgettable.
Again, director Falls receives the high marks for accurately sensing each writer's needs and providing an imaginative tracing of each play.
Laura Crow's fine costumes and Adrianne Lobel's sets contribute to this as well, remaining simple, for touring purposes, but evocative.
One suspects that ultimate thanks for dreaming the whole thing up should go to dramaturge Anne Cattaneo, who surely had to navigate through dozens of pieces of prose to come up with these seven. A champion's crown for her.
"Orchards" plays through Sunday only, 8 p.m. (213) 825-8261.