Written by John McKinney
Directed by Leslie Kincaid Burby
Though it’s in need of some judicious trimming, John McKinney’s engagingly surreal romcom largely succeeds in building a delectable Dagwood sandwich of multiple genres, archetypes and conventions. The play’s premise and tone bring to mind both the metaphysical mayhem of BLITHE SPIRIT and the fantasy-vs-reality tension of PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM. But THE CHEKHOV DREAMS takes these themes to unexpected, often lyrical places, and the wit and tenderness with which McKinney renders his vibrant characters give the audience both an enjoyable ride and something to talk about after the curtain falls.
Ever since the untimely death of his fiancé Kate, Jeremy (Dana Watkins), has been living a life of purposeless squalor. Living on an inheritance, he seldom cleans – let alone leaves – his apartment, and avoids any meaningful connection with other people. He only feels alive in his dreams, where he and Kate (Elizabeth Inghram) are reunited. These nocturnal rendezvous have a dark undercurrent, though. Kate wants Jeremy to commit suicide, so he can join her in the afterlife. A tug of war ensues as Jeremy’s hedonistic brother Eddie (Christian Ryan) attempts to pull him towards life. The opposite of mopey Jeremy, Eddie leads a life of perpetual motion, indulging his voracious appetite for booze, cocaine and kinky sex clubs. At Eddie’s insistence, Jeremy gets back to work on his unfinished novella and enrolls in an acting class. His scene partner Chrissy (Charlotte Stoiber), is sincere and enthusiastic, but the material they’re assigned, proves problematic. It’s a scene from THE SEAGULL, and Jeremy can’t stand Chekhov. In one of the play’s funniest diatribes, he takes the Russian master to task for his ponderous plots, morose characters and florid dialogue. Still, Chrissy manages to convince him to make an effort: the words are supposed to be empty on the page. It’s up to the actors breathe life into them as they find the emotional truth of the scene. For Jeremy and newly-engaged Chrissy, that truth is an uncomfortable one. Like Trigorin and Nina, they are falling in love. Once the possessive Kate finds out about the new woman in Jeremy’s life, she ratchets up her tactics. No longer content to stay on her side of the consciousness line, she begins popping up unexpectedly in the real world as well. Even sleep brings scant from stress, as Jeremey’s reveries with Kate are increasingly disrupted by none other than the good Dr. Chekhov himself (Rik Walter). With his nerves in a state of emergency, our troubled protagonist must figure out a way simultaneously find an ending for his book, unearth the real meaning of the SEAGULL scene, and free himself from the seductive grip of his otherworldly lover’s icy fingers. That’s a hell of a to do list, and it’s no wonder he’s tempted to opt for oblivion instead. Luckily, both the subconscious and everyday worlds have a few more tricks up their respective sleeves.
Under Leslie Kincaid Burby’s thoroughgoing direction, the actors remain scrupulously devoted to Chekov’s admonition not to act, but to feel. Balancing disarming vulnerability with sharp comedic skills, Watkins provides the show with a solid emotional core. His understated intensity is adroitly counterbalanced by Ingrham’s cold allure and Stoiber’s winning spontaneity, as well the broader drollery of Ryan and Walter. They are given a fanciful and picturesque world to play in thanks to Scott Aronow’s protean set design, A. Christina Giannini’s opulent costumes, and Diana Duecker’s mood-enhancing lighting.
THE CHEKHOV DREAMS continues through Feb 17, 2018 at The Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, Between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York NY 10036.