Instead of a flat in Manhattan, the scene is a country estate outside Moscow, but the ennui and constant self-absorption are about the same, as four key characters tumble through a cycle of hopeless attractions and unrequited love. Even though the story is slight and the characters intentionally vapid, Chekhov masterfully orchestrates their passions and eccentricities, while creating an ensemble acting company's dream scenario. Describing his work as a comedy in four acts, the playwright admitted that his work features "little action and tons of love." And although it ends with a tragedy, a viewer leaves this production with Chekhov's finely honed and quite contemporary comic sensibility (thanks to a translation by Tom Stoppard) warming the cold night air.
The four-cornered love jones involves Nina, a young actress-in-training who swoons over Trigorin, a famous author teetering on the brink of middle age. Trigorin is ensnared in a passive (him)-aggressive (her) affair with theatrical diva Arkadina, who, when she's not jerking Trigorin's chain, is busy undermining her emotionally impulsive son, Konstantin, a struggling writer in love with Nina. Also bobbing around in this spicy borscht are a number of other quaint characters, including the brandy-loving Masha (black-clad Kat McIntosh, so depressed she seems to be channeling Richard Lewis), her kick-me schmoo of a husband, Medvedenko (an almost transparent Michael Dempsey), and the comical estate caretaker, Shamraev, and his unstable wife, Polina (Mark Cipra and Mary Alice Beck).
Bernadette Clemens offers a radiant, multi-tiered characterization of Nina, a complex role portrayed with seemingly effortless virtuosity. In the juicy role of Arkadina, Tracee Patterson is a joy to watch as she manipulates Trigorin (played with perfectly resigned squishiness by Jeffrey Grover) and twists her son into a Freudian pretzel. As Konstantin, Jesse Kamps does his best with a character that seems too sincere to be funny and too volatile to be endearing. Looking on from the outside are two gentlemen: the happily single Dr. Dorn (a bemused Robert Hawkes) and the elderly host, Sorin, played by Kelly Holt, who possesses such a magnificently expressive face, it should be sculpted onto a Royal Doulton mug without delay.
In less capable hands, the large cast could have turned into a free-for-all on Beck's small Studio Theater stage, but director Thomas Q. Fulton uses Don McBride's elegantly efficient set and Alison Hernan's delicious costumes to achieve a cozy intimacy. And by paying attention to the small details of characterization as well as the spoken words, Fulton paints a rich and endlessly fascinating canvas. For a play about nothing, that's something.