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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Virtue in Flat, Simplistic Vice

Mikhail Artsybashev, a writer who enjoyed notoriety at the beginning of the 20th century, was best known - and quite loved for a time - for his treatments of gruesome topics. Debauchery, rape, suicide, murder and executions fascinated him, and his stories, novels and plays all indulged in them liberally.

During perestroika, when many writers who had been ignored for decades returned to prominence, Artsybashev failed to make the grade. His most famous novel, "Sanin" - scandalous for so much free love and profligacy - was republished in Russia in 1990, but did not make much of a stir. His plays did not return to the stage - with one exception, that is.

Sergei Artsibashev, who calls himself a distant relative and spells his name in the modern orthography, did bring back one play, "Jealousy," in the early 1990s. Not long after that, two key actors in the show left the theater and the play again fell back into oblivion.

Now, Artsibashev has brought new actors into the production and has revived it one more time before the 1900s run out. On Tuesday, he unveiled the renovated show as part of a dual celebration - it was the director's 48th birthday and the opening of the theater's 1999/2000 season.

I don't share Artsibashev's fascination with his namesake's play.

As one of the characters quips sardonically, "When Russians get together and don't drink wine or play cards, they talk about literature or death. And that's boring."

With the concepts of sex and infidelity replacing those of literature and death, that little outburst might be a description of Artsibashev's own play. Certainly, the conclusion that high-minded and morbid talk grows tedious fast fits like a glove. "Jealousy" is a flat, simplistic problem play. The fabric of a moral, social and psychological problem is draped over a thin dramatic structure and - voil?! - the result is supposed to be drama for thought.

With rare exception, my thoughts hovered in the area of: Who cares?

"Jealousy" is brimming with a kind of sexual hysteria that one would have thought went out with the dinosaurs.

Impassioned dialogues and soliloquies on the nature of sexual desire and flirtation that lead to infidelity, the breakdown of the social order and - oh, horror! - the humiliation of the male ego don't strike me as ideas that demand our attention.

Yelena (Tatyana Yakovenko) is a woman who balances on the verge of cheating on her sedate, writer husband, Sergei (Valery Nenashev). She flirts openly with the dashing Count Darbelyani (Oleg Pashchenko) and competes with her freethinking friend Klavdia (Yelena Starodub) for the attentions of the inexperienced student Seryozha (Yevgeny Buldakov).

Andrei Ivanovich (Alexander Smirnov), Yelena's husband's best friend, is a sour, humorless type who believes that his penchant for telling the straight truth is a justification for the hurtful, mean, petty notions he foists on people.

Suffice it to say that one of the key ideas expressed primarily through this character can be boiled down to the revelation that women use makeup and dress in finery in order to attract the beast in men. It goes without saying that if a man cannot restrain his burgeoning virility, it's the damn trollop's own fault.

I'm making fun, of course, but this play encourages such responses.

Artsibashev is a fine director and he pulled a few strings that helped soften the play's deadening impact. The early scenes depicting a picnic in the country begin as a sort of masquerade. Three masked women dance with colored banners and then join in a sculpturesque pose clearly reminiscent of the classical depiction of the three Muses.

The idea of Woman as Muse is repeated later by Klavdia's husband, Semyon (Gennady Chulkov). When Klavdia leaves him to run off with the student, Seryozha, he forgivingly repeats his belief that women are sent by God to bring "us" poetry and beauty.

But neither Chulkov's gentle, understanding performance, nor Buldakov's on-target, if somewhat over-the-top, interpretation of the exuberant student are nearly enough to make sense of this droning play.

There is one moment when - almost as if by magic - a thunderbolt of genuine passion seemed to strike the stage Tuesday.

It happened when Sonya (Natalya Grebyonkina), a schoolgirl in love with her young boyfriend, Seryozha, confronted him about his faithlessness. As he crawled on his hands and knees towards her, begging forgiveness, she attacked him, taking short, staccato steps, bitterly berating him in a wicked whisper and batting at him with her hands. It was more as if she were striking at an imagined evil specter than at a real person.

Grebyonkina, in that short moment, cut through all the weight and murk of the tendentious play and made the topic of jealousy real. Not through words, but through a searing burst of actor's temperament. It was a moment of truth that gave a glimpse of the power that this topic might have were it not strangled in the endless ruminations of an author trying too hard to be scandalous and intelligent at the same time.

By the time Yelena's husband lost his grip on reality and confronted his wife over her alleged infidelities, I believed none of it. He was, I thought, little more than a silly man who had worked himself into a frenzy over his vapid wife. Their final moment together - either a love embrace or a murderous clench - was symbolic, but anticlimactic.

The most prominent feature of designer Olga Mizinova's stage is its emptiness. The banners in the first scene double as grass in the country when the picnickers lay them out. And an art nouveau-style bench is brought in to suggest an interior in later scenes. But, for the most part, the stage is left free for the actors to engage in the author's high-wind, low-quality orations.

"Jealousy" (Revnost) plays Sept. 25 and Oct. 7 and 20 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Pokrovke, 50/2 Pokrovka Ul. Tel. 917-0263. Metro: Kurskaya. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.