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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Impressive Drama Debut, but It's No Party

Mildred Jenkins is pretty sure she is still alive. She would feel more certain if Don, her 20-year-old boarder with a latent sadistic streak, did not keep reminding her that people get forgotten before they die. And if her arrogant former boyfriend from upstairs had not dumped her after using her to get his fake-flower business going. And if her memories of childhood were not so frustratingly elusive. But in Athol Fugard's "People Are Living There" nobody gets any slack. It may not be fair, but that's not the point. At the Theater U Nikitskikh Vorot the celebrated South African writer's play is given the misleading title of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," echoing the song Milly uses to try to pump up everyone's spirits at her rather grim birthday party. But that change neither softens the play's hard message nor dulls its biting story. It is an impressive debut in the dramatic genre for director Mikhail Kislyarov, whose previous experience was as a choreographer at the Pokrovsky Chamber Musical Theater. He put his mastery of dance to good use in a few dreamy scenes that momentarily allow characters to escape the limits of their daily lives, but his feel for drama is equally strong. Also on the mark is Marina Kaidalova, who turns in a first-rate performance as Milly, the crusty, middle-aged landlady whose loser renters, Don and Shorty, are about her last link with the outside world. Holding her momentum almost through to the end, Kaidalova gives Milly a tough, tenacious streak and a raw, cutting edge which does not exclude some revelatory moments of weakness and doubt. With a little better pacing of her performance, she might avoid a drop in intensity as the action reaches its climax, but that is nitpicking, really. By any measure, Kaidalova is excellent as the woman with almost nothing left to lose. Don and Shorty, both of them outcasts, are on a collision course. And their point of impact is roughly that same gray area of despair that Milly inhabits. Don (Pyotr Tataritsky) is a cynical and painfully disillusioned introvert who takes revenge on the world's lack of joy by telling everyone the honest, caustic "truth." Fueled by his readings of Freud, Don thinks he knows the reason why Shorty's six-month marriage to Cissy (Yelena Sokolova) is already on the rocks: She has not let Shorty touch her yet, he suggests. Shorty (Dmitry Osherov) is a mild-mannered mailman who repeatedly gets his pay docked for losing letters, and who tries bolstering his shaky self-confidence by taking up boxing. A wide-eyed innocent and the constant butt of jokes, Shorty maddens everyone all the more for being so forgiving. Despite their differences, Milly, Don and Shorty are closely bound by their almost continual state of mutual animosity. That is most clear during Milly's tragi-farcical birthday party. She arranges it to prove she still exists, but it quickly bogs down in bitter personal attacks among the participants. Using several stop-action scenes, Kislyarov does not let us forget Milly's origins. The stage lighting by Yelena Michurina goes sharply to yellow and a silent young girl (Dasha Velikanova) in a white dress takes the stage to dance a bit or simply watch the other characters unseen. These scenes from Milly's "secret" past are low-key and effective. Inna Kudina's apartment interior, with the kitchen spilling onto the floor in front of the audience, is purposefully nondescript. The costumes by Natalya Kostygova are literally topped off by Milly's crazy, electric-powered birthday hat. "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," focused around Marina Kaidalova's wilful Milly, captures well Fugard's tale of the down but not-quite-out. "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (Kogda ulybnutsya irlandskiye glazki) plays June 25 at 7 P.M. at the Theater U Nikitskikh Vorot, 23/9 Ulitsa Gertsena. Tel. 202-8219. Running time: 2 hours, 55 mins.