Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prodigal Son Returns With Delightful 'Banana'

The opening of a new arts center, the Moscow Salon, not only brought to town the most recent play by one of the world's best playwrights, Slawomir Mrozek, it also marked the return of one of the city's prodigal sons.

After several disastrous projects in Moscow and some time spent cooling his heels in the West, director Roman Kozak is back with a playful interpretation of Mrozek's "Widows," which Kozak rechristened as "Banana" for the Moscow run.

The play, about two widows whose recently deceased husbands had too much in common, was an excellent choice for the young Kozak who, essentially, has found himself in the position of having to stage a hometown comeback.

Mrozek's sublime dramatic simplicity, his crystalline sense of humor, and his intellectual clarity have always made for plays that grab an audience quickly and affect it deeply. "Widows," or "Banana," is blessed with most of the expatriate Polish writer's usual strengths. Furthermore, it has an added gentle warmth that is undoubtedly the result of Mrozek having recently survived a near-death experience.

Supported by a strong team, Kozak captured the play's whimsy and wisdom nicely. He gave free rein to the nonstop (and on-target) skewering of people's vanities and the small talk they hide them behind. But the point was at least as much to savor human foibles as to ridicule them. Thus, the intrusion of death is not so terrible as it is alluring.

Roza and Lotus (played with muted comic timing by Yelena Shanina and Larisa Kuznetsova) are the two widows who start by commiserating in a caf? about their husband's funerals, but soon learn that each was the other's husband's lover. Thanks to their waiter's late delivery of notes from each man, the women learn their husbands died not of food poisoning or a cold, as they had thought. They died, it seems, in a duel.

The action then switches back to the incident which put the two men, Romeo (Maxim Sukhanov) and Tristan (Alexander Baluyev), on a deadly collision course. There, in the same caf?, they encounter a gorgeous, silent woman. But the more each of them pursues her, the more it becomes clear that she is the one pursuing them.

Alla Sigalova, who also choreographed the imaginative dance scenes, is wonderfully vampish as the mysterious figure of death. And Valery Garkalin is superb as the wacky, maybe even god-like waiter who takes sinister joy in getting everything wrong, and whose careless discarding of a banana peel has dire consequences.

Designer Pavel Kaplevich created the airy, beige set consisting of three round tables under huge pineapple-like lamps. Its clean lines and lightly humorous appearance are the ideal environment.

The success of "Banana" is especially satisfying because of the past inconsistencies in its director's 10-year career. Kozak first gained attention in the mid-1980s as an actor and director at the little Chelovek Theater-Studio. But subsequent attempts to go big-time brought him only trouble.

He founded the heralded Fifth Studio at the Chekhov Art Theater in 1990 only to see it flop within a year. Then, he took over as the artistic director at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater in autumn 1991. Ten months later, obsessed by insistent whispers that he was in over his head, he resigned and headed West.

Now, "Banana" suggests that the confidence some showed in Kozak a few years ago was justified. It and the Moscow Salon are an encouraging new beginning.

"Banana"(Banan), a production of the Moscow Salon, plays Jan. 17, 19 and 24 at 7 P.M. at the Hermitage Theater, 3 Karetny Ryad, Hermitage Garden. Tel: 209-2076. Running Time: 1 hour, 50 mins.