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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Art Theater Gets 'Christmas' Gift

The Chekhov Art Theater could use some good news. Having just turned 100 in October, this renowned playhouse is weathering rough times.

Two of its new shows for the gala centennial season have been put on hold. "Somewhere Retribution Has Accrued" "enjoyed" a single semi-public dress rehearsal Oct. 29 before it was sent back to the drawing board. A production of "Intimate Observations" by the Saratov director Alexander Dzekun fared somewhat better. It was performed three or four times before the theater administration realized it had a dud and temporarily canceled performances.

Both of these fiascos came hard on the heels of the theater's now notorious 100th birthday bash. This sloppy, drunken affair broadcast on national television may have generated more bad press and ridicule than the Art Theater had ever seen.

Then, another of the venue's featured shows for the big season - Ivan Okhlobystin's "Maximilian Stolpnik" - fell victim to tragedy. Sergei Shkalikov, the actor who performed the title role, was found dead of a drug overdose on Dec. 6. He was 35 years old. Shkalikov's death not only puts "Stolpnik" on hold after it was performed only a handful of times, it plays havoc with several other shows in which the actor starred. They include "The School for Wives," "Little Tragedies," "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" and "Teibele and Her Demon."

For all of those reasons I am relieved to report that - Merry Christmas! - something has finally gone right at the Chekhov Art Theater. It is not the kind of show capable of righting a sinking ship, but on its own modest terms, the new "Christmas Dreams" is a bona fide and timely delight.

The play is Nadezhda Ptushkina's comedy "When I Was Dying," which recently received a rather tedious production under the title of "Old Maid" by the Class-Center of Musical and Dramatic Art. As "Christmas Dreams," directed by Pyotr Shtein at the Art Theater, the comedy crackles and warms like a forest campfire roasting chestnuts.

Most endearing about this show is its homey, rumpled feel. Shtein and designer Boris Krasnov set the action in a recognizable, run-down Moscow apartment. At one side is the comfortably shabby kitchen, while a pair of walls in the center that are easily swung back and forth by the actors allow us various views of the dingy entryway and drab rooms. The apartment is "decorated" only with what is necessary to move the play forward - a portrait of Charles Dickens will serve in a pinch as an icon for a blessing, while the only books on the bookshelf, Dickens' collected works, will become a last-minute New Year's gift.

The purposefully dreary setting allows the simplicity and warmth of the acting to come across unhindered. Furthermore, the magical strains of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" are used repeatedly, though not excessively, to keep the atmosphere at a toasty, inviting temperature.

Ptushkina essentially wrote a fairy tale, crossing it with one of modern Russia's favorite New Year's stories, the movie "Irony of Fate," that portrays a man finding true love by mistakenly coming home to the wrong apartment. In "Christmas Dreams," the middle-aged man isn't returning home, but thinks he is paying a visit to his new 20-year-old girlfriend. And the woman isn't a young beauty with a fiance in hand, but a 60-year-old spinster who has spent her life caring for her mother.

I'm giving nothing away by saying now that all ends well. That is built into the sentimental play and Shtein tips it off at the outset. With "The Nutcracker" pounding joyously in the semi-dark auditorium, balls of dancing light sway back and forth across the stage, creating an aura of enchantment that immediately assures us that this is a tale of happiness. Our task as spectators is to sit back and wait to find out how happiness will be achieved.

Sofya Ivanovna (Iya Savvina) is an old woman who believes she has only days to live. This prompts her to have a soul-baring talk with her daughter Tatyana (Natalya Tenyakova). She regrets she has been so selfish and now would give anything to see her daughter happy and married.

Perhaps that chat is what inspires Tatyana, or maybe she was finally ripe for a little adventure, but when a stranger by the name of Igor (Yevgeny Kindinov) appears at her door bearing flowers and champagne, she is not about to let him go.

Tatyana, it turns out, is a remarkably resourceful woman with an extraordinary imagination and plenty of chutzpah. She fakes a sprained ankle to keep Igor from leaving, presents him to her mother as an old flame of 40 years ago and then begins pretending she doesn't want Igor to come back when he himself reveals an interest in her.

Later, as another favor to her robustly "dying" mother who would terribly like to have a granddaughter, she invites in Dina (Nelli Nevedina), a local store clerk, to fake the role of her long-lost daughter.

The acting is almost always excellent. Tenyakova, fidgety, funny and energetic, plays a burdened woman who loves every minute of her misfortune and is bound and determined to use it to her advantage.

Kindinov plays a bit of a simpleton who enjoys the ruse. It gives him a pleasant rustic charm and helps us ignore such far-fetched plot complications as Igor's believing he is Dina's father. Savvina's Sofya may be self-centered, but she is entirely magnanimous about it.

"Christmas Dreams" may not aim high, but it makes the most of what it is - a light comedy geared to entertain.

"Christmas Dreams" (Rozhdestvenskie gryozy) plays Fri. at 7 p.m. and Sat. at 6 p.m. on the New Stage of the Chekhov Art Theater, 3 Kamergersky Pereulok. Tel. 229-8760. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.