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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New 'Suicide' Lacks Luster of Past

When the Tsvilling Theater from Chelyabinsk opened its Moscow tour at the Vakhtangov Theater last weekend, it kicked things off with an acclaimed, six-year-old version of Nikolai Erdman's legendary play, "The Suicide." Thursday's performance of Anton Chekhov's "Fatherlessness," like Friday's of Alexander Ostrovsky's "The Diary of a Scoundrel," are more recent offerings.

In all, by the time the theater leaves town after its June 16 show, it will have given 16 performances of seven different productions. They are only part of a protracted tour which began in St. Petersburg and will conclude in Sochi. The occasion is the 75th birthday of one of the most respected of Russia's many provincial houses.

Naum Orlov, artistic director at the Tsvilling since 1973, brought four of his own productions, two by his staff director Mikhail Filimonov and one by Arkady Kats, a well-known director now based in Moscow but who achieved nationwide recognition as the leader of the now-defunct Russian Drama Theater in Riga.

"The Suicide," as directed by Orlov, created a minor sensation after opening in the spring of 1990. Written in the late 1920s, but banned in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s, Erdman's play was then being discovered by theaters all over the country. Most, however, failed to untangle the mysteries of this strange tragi-farce which had become an acknowledged classic even though its world premiere took place only in 1969 in Malmo, Sweden.

Orlov's interpretation sparkled as one of the best among the dozens of shows then sweeping across what was still the Soviet Union. It captured equally the play's lyrical atmosphere and philosophical underpinnings, handling the knockabout situations with verve. A Moscow tour in the fall of 1990 won the praise of Muscovites, while a subsequent tour to Germany won Alexander Mezentsev a prize there as best actor in a touring production.

But times, styles, sensibilities and expectations have changed dramatically since then. Little more than a faint echo of the initial success is left now.

What once was an introspective, dream-like performance about a weak, depressed but likable man who has lost his way in life, has now largely become flat and obvious.

As Semyon, the unemployed worker who finds himself pushed toward suicide by a ragtag group of opportunists out to further their own ends, Mezentsev still shines. Wiry, lithe and attractively vulnerable, he is a simpleton with a soul, a fool with a heart.

But most everything else has come apart. The play, never an easy one to perform, is no longer served by the busy period detail in Timur Didishvili's set and costumes, while most of the actors have slippeddinto playing zany, predictable comedy.

Erdman's diamond-cut, pun-filled dialogue never lets things fall too low, evoking repeated bursts of laughter, but you can also feel it holding things back. But for Mezentsev, the actors have become a team of clowning caricatures muffing the author's ambiguity and wisdom, and steering the show away from its original inspiration.

More characteristic of the Tsvilling Theater is Arkady Kats' 1995 production of Alexander Ostrovsky's "The Diary of a Scoundrel." It is a brisk, fresh show that, while traditional at heart, has an attractive contemporary gloss.

Kats severely abridged the play about the young Yegor Glumov making a career through flattery and deception, gaining much in dynamics, and losing some in depth. We get less of Ostrovsky's personalities, but a clearer picture of duplicity and fraud streaking forward like an arrow.

The visually arresting set by Tatyana Shvets depicts a two-paneled chess board. The actors move about the floor like game pieces, while the panel on the back wall reveals headless "trophies" popping up each time Glumov makes a new conquest.

Alexei Martynov puts a recognizably modern spin on his performance of Glumov. He is not the scoundrel mentioned in the traditional English translation of Ostrovsky's title which is closer to "In Every Wiseman Hides a Simpleton." This Glumov is appalled by what he has to do to make his mark, but he knows there is no other way. He also isn't much surprised when his scheme unravels.

"Diary" has some of the hyper-theatrical histrionics that have grown over "The Suicide" like weeds, but they are done with a lively wit that usually makes them an asset rather than a liability.

Reportedly, Orlov's productions of Dmitry Merezhkovsky's historical novel, "The Antichrist," and Tennessee Williams' play, "Kingdom of Earth," are especially strong, while Filimonov's staging of Stepan Lobozyorov's "Family Portrait With a Stranger" presents a version of one of Russia's most popular plays in recent years.

"The Diary of a Scoundrel" (Na vsyakogo mudretsa dovolno prostoty) plays Friday, "The Suicide" (Samoubiitsa) Tuesday, both at 7 p.m. at the Vakhtangov Theater, 26 Arbat. Tel. 241-1651. Other 7 p.m. shows at the Vakhtangov include "Fatherlessness" Thursday and Wednesday; James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" Saturday and June 15; "The Antichrist" Sunday; "Family Portrait With a Stranger" Monday and June 14; and "Kingdom of Earth" June 13 and 16.