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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mild Evenings With Marrying Men

Two new productions of vastly different plays might stand as twin symbols of the current season. I don't ever recall seeing so many moderately pleasant, pointedly reassuring and easily forgettable shows.

Now we can add Sergei Zhenovach's treatment of Alexander Volodin's "Five Evenings" at the Theater Na Maloi Bronnoi, and Roman Kozak's staging of Nikolai Gogol's "The Marriage" at the Chekhov Art Theater.

The former is a sentimental Soviet drama about love lost and found again that was enormously popular in the 1960s and was fixed forever in hearts and minds when Nikita Mikhalkov made a splendid movie of it in 1979. The latter is a farce about the ordeals of courtship that only the lazy, it seems, have not tackled of late.

Of the two directors, Kozak appears most to be striving for the unusual. All of the characters in "The Marriage," from the four competing suitors to the potential bride and her mother, are outsized caricatures who bring to the play the feel of a collection of Russian folk dolls.

That sensation is echoed in Georgy Aleksi-Meskhishvili's set, which from the second scene on depicts a bright room decorated in flowery Russian patterns. The ceiling line -- above which rises a deep blue sky instead of a ceiling -- is packed with a jumble of homey objects such as portraits, clocks, samovars and bird cages.

The main marrying man is the finicky clerk Podkolyosin (Viktor Gvozditsky). Without a specific bride in mind yet, he has his servant (Vladimir Kashpur) out and about ordering new shoes and clothes for the vaguely anticipated event. And while the matchmaker Fyokla (Natalya Tenyakova) soon informs him she has a candidate in mind, it isn't until Podkolyosin's boisterous buddy Kochkaryov (Alexander Kalyagin) takes charge that things really begin to happen.

Kochkaryov drags his friend to the house of the bride Agafya Tikhonovna (Alexandra Skachkova), outmaneuvers the other suitors and convinces the coarse girl she wants to marry Podkolyosin. What nobody plans on, however, is just how attached Podkolyosin is to the freedom of bachelorhood. He leaves everybody in the lurch at the last second.

In this version, Kalyagin's loud, blankly grinning Kochkaryov dominates the action. In a furry, bouffant wig, he looks unmistakably like his drag hero from one of his most popular films, a giddy made-for-TV affair called "Hello, I'm Your Aunt."

This may account for the enthusiastic reception Kalyagin receives from the audience, and for why the show never becomes more than a routine, knockabout farce. Kalyagin stifles everyone, including the bride's wonderfully weird mother (Nina Gulyayeva) and the comically imposing suitor Yaichnitsa -- that is, Mr. Scrambled Eggs -- (Vyacheslav Nevinny), to say nothing of Podkolyosin.

At the show I attended the upstaging of Podkolyosin was rounded out by the technical bungling of two big scenes. His opening pantomime was totally obscured by a rolling bank of theatrical smoke that had the audience blinded and choking (and laughing and talking) for several minutes. Later, as he prepares to escape out the window in the finale, the busy arms and feet of a stagehand fixing a harness to his back were quite conspicuous. So much for the "surprise" of Podkolyosin flying into the sky instead of dropping into the street below.

There are no tricks in "Five Evenings," whether in the simple, intimate play or in Zhenovach's conscientious staging. It tries valiantly to make a virtue of its unspectacularness and nearly succeeds.

Ilyin (Sergei Kachanov) is back in Leningrad circa 1957 for the first time in 17 years. When he catches a glimpse of his former sweetheart Tamara (Nadezhda Markina), he pays her a visit. Over the next five evenings, the broken dreams of their past, the lies of their present and their hopes for the future mix in a deliberately pale comedy of errors that pushes them apart before bringing them together.

Ilyin is an outcast, a once potentially brilliant chemist now working as a driver in the distant north. He lies about that to Tamara, telling her he's the head engineer at the plant. When she hears the truth from the real boss (Vladimir Toptsov), he's devastated. But she also learns the reason for it: Many years ago Ilyin stood up and told the truth at his institute and suffered for it. That's the kind of man she's been waiting for all these years.

Adding colorful and lively contrast to the earnest but gray leads are Tamara's teenage nephew Slava and his girlfriend Katya, played with spirit and humor by Gennady Nazarov and Mariya Glazkova.

Alexander Borovsky's clever set of five pairs of doors sliding across the stage ingeniously keeps the stage neat and clean, and marks the various places where meetings occur.

"Five Evenings" (Pyat vecherov) plays May 11, 21 and 29 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Maloi Bronnoi, 4 Malaya Bronnaya. Tel. 290-1948. Running time: 2 hours, 5 mins. "The Marriage" (Zhenitba) plays May 26 and 29 at 7 p.m. at the Chekhov Art Theater, 3 Kamergersky Pereulok. Tel. 229-8760. Running time: 2 hours, 55 mins.