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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Once Again, Tolstoy Overshadows 'Mrs. Lev'

What do fire and water, air and earth, and Leo and Sofya Tolstoy have in common? All are natural opposites that somehow found a way to coexist: the elements for millions of years, the Tolstoys for 48.

And it still isn't certain which of those competing pairs was rocked by more rifts and conflagrations. It is a fact that the Tolstoy union, which produced 16 children and some of the world's greatest literature, was one of the most complex, confrontational and painful famous-name marriages in history.

"Mrs. Lev," a play by Sergei Kokovkin, produced by Boris Morozov at the Contemporary Play School, takes a stab at getting a fresh perspective on the troubled Tolstoy alliance. However, concentrating on the events of a single day shortly before Tolstoy's death at age 82, it emerges more as a homogenized illustration of marital discord than as the purging re-evaluation of conflicting human forces that one suspects the makers had in mind.

The play's title, reproducing Leo Tolstoy's name in its Russian form, seems to hint ironically that history may have left Sofya in Leo's shadow, but now we are going to take another look. It happens only to a limited degree.

In the play's single day, Sofya is confronted with the latest in a long line of Leo's infidelities with local peasant women, and with the latest attempt by Tolstoy's adviser Vladimir Chertkov (Vladimir Kachan) to gain control of the rights to the great man's writings. Providing some comic relief is a British visitor (Sergei Yeremeyev) who has come to record Tolstoy's voice for posterity on a newfangled recording machine. When he fails to turn the contraption off, he also inadvertently records a conversation that gives Sofya proof of Tolstoy's tryst with the young Tanya (Yelena Ksenofontova).

Kokovkin based his play on historical facts -- Tolstoy's prodigious capacity for sexual escapades, Chertkov's shifty maneuvers to inherit Tolstoy's wealth for his own socially oriented schemes, Sofya's frightful position of seeing herself publicly pummeled and ridiculed in her husband's literature.

He brings these facts together in a hypothetical setting, and the result is a recognizable picture for anyone who is at least casually informed about Tolstoy's life; but it doesn't really offer any new insights.

Valentina Talyzina's Sofya, for all the sympathy she may attract, seems stubborn and narrow rather than feisty and trapped. She plays a woman wronged, practically determined to defend herself and the rights of her children, but never breaking out as a full-fledged personality on her own.

She comes closest when confronting her "rival," Tanya, through understanding and sisterly friendship. Sofya falls into unguarded reminiscing, admitting she has "been mating" her whole life long. For a brief moment, we see her as a tragic figure, a person who has done all that society and her husband have asked of her, receiving only scorn in return.

Lev Durov, an explosive actor with an unruly white beard attached to his chin, is a dead ringer for Tolstoy. But his striking resemblance may even have worked against him. He so perfectly calls up our own preconceived notions of Tolstoy that we see in him more of the myth than of the human being.

And when in the end he seems to return as an apparition to narrate what will happen in the final hours of his life at the railway station of Astapovo, we realize that once again Tolstoy has overshadowed Sofya.

Tatyana Spasolomskaya's set depicts a rustic interior at Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana estate. Initially, we see it vaguely through a screen that also reveals a battle mural on the back wall, referring equally perhaps to Tolstoy's experiences in the Crimean War and his unsettled married life. The color scheme is of browns and blues, echoing the mix of the earth and the heavens that characterized his uneasy union with "Mrs. Lev."

"Mrs. Lev" plays Jan. 19 and 24 at 7 p.m. at the Contemporary Play School, Trubnaya Ploshchad. Tel. 200-0756. Running time: 2 hours.