Chekhov's farces, on the other hand, thrive on annoying characters. You can't have a good farce unless the characters are so self-absorbed that they utterly fail to communicate. The whining, the self-pity, the vanity, the depression ... it's so ridiculously funny.
Well, it is half the time, judging from Beowulf Alley Theatre Company's current production of four Chekhov farces. Two of the half-hour pieces hit every mark; the other two, despite the company's best efforts, founder, because as a playwright, Chekhov couldn't give himself a swift kick in the butt.
First, the bad news. "A Reluctant Tragic Hero" is an overlong, kvetching monolog in which a miserable man details to a friend how difficult a typical day of life in business, marriage and society is. It's far too much setup for far too little joke at the end.
And "The Festivities" (sometimes translated as "The Jubilee" or "The Anniversary") just throws together four characters, allows them to disturb each other for what seems like an eternity, and ultimately disintegrates because absolutely nothing of any real importance has been threatened by the foursome's squabbling.
But now the good news. "The Proposal" and "The Bear" are justly two of Chekhov's most popular light works, and they occupy the first half of the Beowulf Alley bill. In each, people fail to communicate, because they are diverted by getting to know each other a bit too well. The characters are sharp; the dialog is crisp; and the resolution is well-earned. (The set, oddly, is recycled directly from Beowulf Alley's most recent show, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party; only the fish nets have come down, and a few panels have been repainted.)
In "The Proposal," a very nervous young man (played by Brian Hendricks) comes to ask his neighbor (Ted Parks) for the hand of his daughter (Sarah Hayes). The daughter has no idea why the young man is visiting, and, like good Russians, they begin to squabble about property boundaries and hunting dogs. Clearly, in the unlikely event the wedding is arranged, it will be a fine case study for marriage counselors and divorce attorneys.
Parks is dissolute but intimidating as the father, bringing depth to a character who might otherwise be tossed off as a stock bumbler. Hendricks is very good at nervousness and hypochondria, and Hayes manages to be attractively earthy and petulantly childlike at the same time, not merely the spoiled little rich girl this character can sometimes be.
The title character in "The Bear" is a big, gruff, potentially violent man (Stephen Elton, doubling as the show's director) who demands that an excessively grieving widow (Laura Miotke) pay off her late husband's debt so he can keep the bank from foreclosing on his property. They take an instant dislike to each other, to the point that the man and woman agree to fight a duel. Of course, the relationship proceeds to twist this way and that, to the horror and disgust of the woman's servant (Bill Epstein).
Elton has elected to move the action of each one-act play to America, and "The Bear" is where the decision pays off most handsomely. It's set in the Old West, and the formerly Russian relationships translate perfectly; indeed, all the fussing and hollering seems much more natural this way. The grieving widow may be wearing black, but the outfit looks saloon-ready and appropriate for attracting the attention of some potential husband No. 2. As for Elton's character, seeing him swagger through the door in full cowboy regalia, a bit of Ennio Morricone playing in the background, and then hearing him introduce himself with a triple-decker Russian name ending in "Smirnoff"--really, this spoils your taste for any other way of playing it.
Through these two little farces, each of the six actors remains perfectly on target. Hayes is also excellent in "The Festivities" as a Betty Boop-style flapper, but otherwise, the roles in the two lesser farces are far less gratifying and don't repay the cast's diligent work.
I would not advise you to flee at intermission, after "The Proposal" and "The Bear"; the actors are working in good faith, and it won't kill you to reward them with one more hour of your time. But there's no denying that the best material comes first. Luckily, as the cliché goes, the first half alone is worth the price of admission.