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A CurtainUp Review

Chekhov's Rifle

If a gun hangs from the wall in the first act of a play, it must fire in the last
---Playwriting maxim coined by Anton Chekhov and used by Alex Ladd as the inspirational trigger for an entire two-act play about life in the wannabe lane of theater and film.
Craig Bachman and Austin Pendleton
Craig Bachman and Austin Pendleton
Alex Ladd certainly can't be faulted for lack of creative ambition. He has infused Chekhov's Rifle with elements of four different genres -- comedy, murder mystery, social satire and literary spoof. It manages to engender some laughs and suspense and delivers some well-aimed pot shots at a society that has made "art" a dirty word. Its literary spoofing not only rings in Chekhov's above quoted playwriting maxim but actually stirs some characters from a Chekhov play, The Seagull, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, into the mix.

It's too bad that ultimately neither Ladd's play or its presentation in this showcase premiere lives up to its promise. The comedy too often falls flat. The mystery turns out to be neither as suspenseful or surprising as it should be. Most disappointing of all, the characters tend towards stereotpe and the smarter portions of their dialogue are diminished by excessively repetitious and mundane language. By the time Mr. Ladd brings Chekhov's maxim to its noisy conclusion, I found myself wondering, "what would Tom Stoppard would have done with this situation?"

The situation is this: Harry Trollope (Austin Pendleton) is a playwright committed to art which no one appreciates. He is a failure not only in the theater but with women (small wonder -- the man is grouchy, sloppy and no longer young). Even though his two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side is hardly a palace he still needs roommates to help pay the rent. The spare bedroom is currently occupied by Tim Hunter (Craig Bachmann), a good-looking, airheaded actor who sees no reason why his total lack of talent should keep him from being famous -- fame itself being his goal, rather than any driving need for self-fulfillment. It is this Odd Couple set-up of two opposites who should never have come to reside under one roof, that leads to the messy complications that follow.

Though Tim is currently in one of Harry's plays (in a small theater, showcase production similar to Chekhov's Rifle), there's no love lost between the two men. Tim represents everything that enrages Harry. His comprehension and pronunciation of words is appalling, his literary background a blank slate. Harry's disdain is fanned by unspoken envy of Tim's success with good looking girls -- the latest being two (Veronica Bero and Dawn McGee) he's recently picked up and had sex with at the same time one or the other of whom dash into the bathroom at every mention of the word naked.

Besides the girls, who are mostly hidden away in Tim's bedroom, there's the very much in evidence rifle of the title that hangs across a frame over Harry's desk. It turns out to be the real thing, a treasure Harry discovered in an antique shop and said to have belonged to the great Russian writer. Per Chekhov's rule, it doesn't go off in the first act, but it leads to Harry's showing Tim a script he wrote as an exercise in turning out something he describes as awful enough to be a big hit. Not surprisingly, Tim, who's not just stupid but completely amoral, appropriates it and passes it off to his agent as his own work.

Since Tim's agent isn't quite the magician he claims to be, there are some interviews for the actor turned celebrity writer, but money is still a problem -- especially since Tim's girl friend Meg threatens to sue him for the bills he ran up on her credit card, Harry wants him out after Meg destroys the place during an enraged visit. And so the rifle leaves the wall and Act two sees Tim in full possession of the apartment and a Colombo-like detective (Jess Osuna) whose literary and theatrical know-how is a clear signal that he's not quite the easy-going bureaucrat he appears to be.

Ladd has reserved his best writing for the Detective, including some amusing ruminations on the most likely suicides in various neighborhood (writers predominate on the Upper West Side so he's tagged them "Ernies" for that most fabled literary suicide, Ernest Hemingway). Jess Osuna is more comfortable in this juicy part than most of the cast in their roles. Austin Pendleton, is hardly up to his usual high standard as Trollope (if the author used the name as a connection to the British writer, there's no follow-up). Craig Bachmann's emotional range is almost as limited as his character's vocabulary. Bridget Flanery's Meg is standard issue angry girlfriend. The play's most cliched character is Tim's agent Sal Marino and George Morafetis does little to make him any less so.

The production isn't helped by the excessive and irritating prop movements. Even Shanan Estreicher's original incidental music, while pleasant, is, like everything else about this play and production, overdone. His catchy scene changing tune is often allowed to play longer than necessary. Instead of wrecking the apartment once, Meg does so twice. Tim's favorite expletive is used relentlessly and without variation.

Mr. Ladd has some good ideas and his literary allusions (some actally played out) are fun. However, while he follows Chekhov's maxim, he's ignored another: Having the rifle on the wall go off at the right time is just one step in the process of creating a really solid play.

Chekhov's Rifle
Written by Alex Ladd
Directed by Nolan Haimes
Cast: Craig Bachmann, Veronica Bero, Bridget Flanery, Dawn McGee, George Morafetis, Jess Osuna, Austin Pendleton
Set Design: Michele Spadaro
Costume Design: Wade Laboissonniere
Lighting Design: Daniel Onlower & Carrie Wood
Sound Design: Mark Corbin
Running time: 2 hours plus intermission
Original Music: Shanan Estreicher
Lord Strange Troupe at Greenwich Street Theatre, 547 Greenwich Street(near Spring Street)212/868/4444
9/19/03 through 10/04/03; opening 9/23/03
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance

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