Anton Chekhov's characters love to suffer. In the Russian master's plays, they turn angst into art. And nothing perversely delights them more than to make everyone around them miserable as well: It means they are the center of attention.
Ivan, the central character of Chekhov's early play "Ivanov," is a definitive example. "Poor Bastard," Whit Hertford's adaptation of the play, making a brief run at Central Utah Art Center (CUAC) in downtown Salt Lake City, captures the spirit of the original in an entertaining production that overcomes its problems and makes it more accessible. Hertford has condensed and updated the play, dropped extra characters and gotten rid of the melodrama. He also understands that these characters are as funny as they are pathetic. "Comedy is tragedy sped up," Ivan says in the play, and this adaptation deftly balances the comic with the more serious elements.
Ivan, a self-described "financial consultant who can't handle his own finances," has painted himself into a corner. He's broke and totally bored with his life. Anna, his wife, is very ill, but he can't bring himself to care about her, even though, as she persistently reminds him, she gave up her inheritance and her religion to marry him. "He said, 'Follow me; I'll take care of you,' " she complains to her doctor.
Instead, he continually runs off to visit his neighbors, Paul and Zinny Lebby, whose young daughter, Sasha, gives him the affection and attention he craves. Unfortunately, he also owes the Lebbys money, and Zinny keeps hounding him for payment.
Borkin, Ivan's cousin, is too distracted by his own harebrained schemes and his infatuation with Kina, a smart-mouthed caterer, to be much help. "This downward spiral of yours — we're all sick of it," he chastises Ivan, who counters, "I don't think I'll ever be happy. I've become a one-man catastrophe."
Hertford, also the play's director, keeps the action moving along briskly and mines the play's comedy without letting it get too broad, and the acting ensemble is always on the same page with him. Joel Stanley Huff's Ivan prowls around the stark stage like a disgruntled bear as Olivia Custodio's long-suffering Anna alternately pleads with him and berates him. While Mark Macey's clueless Borkin humors Ivan, Andy Rindlisbach's self-righteous doctor vainly tries to get him to shape up and starts drinking and philosophizing when he can't. Tamari Dunbar's shrill shrew of a Zinny contrasts vividly with Roger Dunbar's laid-back, sardonic Paul. As Sasha, Brighton Hertford vacillates between indulging Ivan and frustratingly prodding him to do something — anything. Haeleigh Royall's gossipy Kina snips and snipes at everyone.
The performing space in CUAC's basement is basically an open area with a red tent at one end where Ivan has marooned himself, and the lighting is rudimentary, but the production's pared-back parameters visually convey Ivan's self-inflicted isolation and depression. And the space's intimacy keeps you close to the action.
Nothing frustrated Chekhov more than to see productions of his plays that were bleak and unrelentingly solemn. He saw life as an inextricable mix of comic and tragic moments, and "Poor Bastard" captures the feeling that when it comes to dealing with life's challenges, we are often our own worst enemies.
A take on Chekhov
Whit Hertford's Riot Act theater serves up a consistently entertaining take on Anton Chekhov's "Ivanov."
When • Reviewed on Jan. 19; plays Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through Jan. 28.
Where • CUAC, 175 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $19, $17 for students. Purchase at the door or visit www.riotacttheatre.co.uk for tickets and information. The play contains adult language and situations.
Running time • 80 minutes (no intermission)