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Edith and Anton


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City Lit Theater Company

at Live Bait Theater

"There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it," said Edith Wharton. She and that other acute observer of the upper classes, Anton Chekhov, who was born two years before her, both became superb mirrors--Chekhov brought a concerned doctor's objectivity to all things human ("an artist observes, selects, guesses and synthesizes"), and Wharton, who grew up in old New York society among patricians who stifled their feelings until they lost them altogether, became expert at inventorying emotional profit and loss.

In Edith and Anton City Lit Theater Company combines and contrasts the work of these two writers in three new plays drawn from three of their stories. Performed in chamber-theater style (the narration is parceled out among the characters it concerns), the three tales contain a lot of well-honed truth about old friends, old age, and the pain of bringing new life into a bad world.

The Wharton works, adapted and directed by Mark Richard, spring some rather cruel jokes on characters we're ultimately convinced deserve them. In her delightfully unpredictable, brilliantly plotted "Roman Fever" from 1934, Wharton depicts two wealthy American widows--old friends who have grown apart over the years--who find themselves seated together on a restaurant terrace in Rome. Bitter because the husband who once made her worth knowing has dared to die, Alida Slade (Christine St. John) darkly envies Grace Ansley (Kelly Thompson) the quiet contentment that allows her to happily knit as she faces the awesome Forum.

Grace is solidly happy in the knowledge that her lovely daughter will soon be engaged to Rome's most eligible bachelor. Irritated at Grace's complacency, Alida proceeds to rake up some potentially painful recollections of an earlier visit the women made to Rome. But her aggressive memory mongering backfires. To quote SCTV's John Candy, it's a story that "blows up real good." Richard succeeds by neatly contrasting St. John's clumsy malice with Thompson's maddeningly unflappable serenity, then just lets the story perform its wonderful tricks.

Wharton's "After Holbein" from 1928, an unsparing portrait of unenlightened old age, provides parallel portraits of Anson Warley and Evelina Jaspar, two senile but still snobbish stroke victims who, despite their decrepitude, continue to act out all the lies they've learned to live with. Anson once loved Evelina but long ago rejected her as too old for the fast company he pretends he keeps (though he doggedly clings to the fading memory of her former beauty). In the past when Evelina has requested "the pleasure of his company," he has cruelly declined "the boredom" of seeing her. So cranky Evelina just goes through the motions of throwing parties that no one will attend. Neglect doesn't touch her anymore--her diamonds are far more solid than her mind.

Wharton makes them meet once more. To her servants' surprise, Evelina receives a guest--Anson, suffering from a stroke that has drawn him to her home and that will soon kill him. As we see them, Anson and Evelina--two Alzheimer sleepwalkers--are now so deep in their own mutual delusions that they see what they want; they even believe her servant when he passes off mineral water as a rare vintage and crushed newspapers as a bouquet. It's a bizarre triumph for this "ghostly cortege"--in the depths of their loneliness they have accidentally re-created their past. For Anson, this becomes a last merciful anesthesia before he loses everything.

The story's point of view moves from inside Anson's stroke-struck brain to the outside world, then back again in the final cerebral explosion. But Richard's adaptation gives Evelina an almost equal emphasis; that evenhandedness makes Evelina appear more real than she would have seemed to Anson. However distorting, this forced balance does make the story more dramatic. Well-aged and cadaverous, Larry Baldacci stiffly conveys Anson's crabbed selfishness--and later conveys well Anson's strange delight after his stroke that has freed him from himself. (As his valet, Page Hearn offers a sardonic if rather obvious takeoff on P.G. Wodehouse's butler Jeeves.) Christine St. John's exasperating Evelina, a combination of Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond and Dickens's Miss Havisham, is nicely set off by Kathryn Gallagher as a mischievous nurse who enjoys confusing the harridan and by Jeannie Affelder as her doggedly faithful old maid.

Ending the evening is director Arnold Aprill's supple adaptation of Chekhov's 1888 "The Name-Day Party," a tale of one woman's emotional and intellectual isolation in provincial Russia. The name-day party is for Pyotr Dmitrich, an earnestly stupid reactionary and a thoroughly second-rate husband. Bored, jealous, and unhappily pregnant, his wife Olga Mikhailovna is a sort of Slavic Madame Bovary, sick of being patronized because she went to college and miserable because her husband's attentions are drawn everywhere but to her. In many ways Olga is a model for the three sisters Chekhov created 12 years later, but in the final uncompromising scene her plight is even more pathetic than theirs--and is all the more devastating because she has no one to share it with.

As Aprill stages it, the action seems to swirl around this lonely lady, the supporting cast of six making several rapid costume changes. A lovely actress to see and hear, Jensen Wheeler movingly conveys Olga's helpless and near-total alienation. However, Larry Baldacci is too cerebral and earnest an actor to really sink into dull Pyotr's unthinking cruelty. Rob Hamilton's costumes have the right period poignancy, but his ugly and cumbersome pseudo-Slavic set makes each story look like it's happening in different parts of the same cave.

Edith and Anton is the City Lit Theater Company's first show in its new home, the comfortable 70-seat Live Bait Theater (where City Lit's offerings will alternate with the performance-art work of Live Bait Productions). A former upholstery store, the space has a large, airy lobby and will soon have an adjoining cafe, but some back-row seats suffer from bad sight lines, so check yours in advance.

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