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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shkvarkin's Light Fare Larded With Schmaltz

In "Someone Else's Child" the Gogol Theater has resurrected a playwright, Vasily Shkvarkin, who has not been heard from for decades. But if it makes for an interesting project in principle, in deed there is little to recommend it.

Shkvarkin was an anomaly if not something of a mystery in Soviet literature. An exquisitely polite and impeccably well-dressed man whose elegance was such that one memoirist wrote it seemed he was always wearing white gloves, Shkvarkin was an aesthete who virtually never took part in literary polemics or political life.

Having worked in a bank and the leather business before the revolution, he entered a playwriting contest in 1925, taking second prize. Over the next 20 years, he became the top Soviet writer of light comedies, beloved by audiences, ignored by the state and reviled by the critics. Something of a Neil Simon of his time and place.

By the time of his death at age 73 in 1967, Shkvarkin was pretty much forgotten, although "Someone Else's Child," his most popular play, was occasionally the object of revivals. First staged in 1933 at the Satire Theater, the play was performed at that venue a staggering 1,500 times throughout the '30s and '40s.

With a little goodwill and imagination it is understandable even today why the play was once so widely admired. The comic situations Shkvarkin devises are honed to a sharp edge. The characters, though stereotypes, are lively. And the dialogue, featuring ironic twists and the occasional double entendre, is witty.

Precious little of that, however, comes through in Alexander Bordukov's bracingly superficial and shamelessly overacted production at the Gogol Theater. Things are not helped by Viktoria Nikonova's cartoonish set-- a pale green, see-through dacha with crooked windows and walls, pale green lawn furniture, plyboard cutout shrubbery and a green backdrop suggesting the surrounding forest.

Before long, one can't help but feel that the monotony of the visuals is drowning out what little life there may be lurking in the performance.

In the time-honored style of the 19th-century vaudeville, the play puts forth a budding actress who finds herself rejected by her lover and at odds with her parents. What was new in 1933 was a rather feminist twist: The headstrong girl purposefully worsens her situation to prove her independence. Bordukov shaved off most, though not all, of Shkvarkin's few direct references to "communist reality," but it was not enough to free the work entirely of the smell of mothballs. Manya (Anna Bolshova) is the actress rehearsing the part of a girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock. When one of her suitors, Senechka (Dmitry Chopenko), overhears her repeating her lines, he takes it for the real thing and spills the beans to her horrified parents. It isn't long before Manya is also abandoned by her true love, Kostya (Andrei Bolsunov).

Manya, her sense of justice injured, decides to play the error for all it's worth, finding consolation in a real unwed expectant mother, Raya (Irina Rudnitskaya), whom she talks out of an abortion.

Before all ends happily, several layers of complications are added, with Manya briefly getting engaged to Raya's shifty former lover, Pribylev (Ivan Volkov). He is a road engineer who, when Manya learns the truth and rejects him, decides to flatten the dacha of Manya's parents to make room for a thoroughfare.

Bordukov staged it all in alternating waves of schmaltzy sentimentalism, monumental melodrama and screechy farce. If he was aiming for a kind of retro camp -- a legitimate approach to a play like this -- he missed the mark widely, landing smack dab in the middle of overkill and underachievement.

"Someone Else's Child," occasionally known in translation as "Father Unknown," was once one of the most popular of all Soviet comedies. You wouldn't know that from the production at the Gogol Theater.

"Someone Else's Child" (Chuzhoi Rebyonok) plays Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Gogol Theater, 8a Ulitsa Kazakova. Tel. 262-9214. Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins.