Marriage & Bears, Writers' Theatre Chicago.
When Tolstoy first saw Chekhov's comic one-act The Bear, he reportedly fell out of his chair laughing. Which amazes me, because I've seen the blasted thing five times, counting last Saturday, and have never managed to squeeze out more than a few coughlike chuckles. Even Michael Frayn--the man who turned Chekhov's unfinished early play Platonov into the sweet and witty Wild Honey--couldn't spin laughter out of this dross. But then, judging by this evening of three early Chekhov pieces all translated by Frayn, not everything Michael Frayn touches turns to Noises Off.
The Bear is the best of the lot. This story of a bill collector who first threatens and then woos a depressed widow has, at most, four truly comic moments. Nevertheless the play works as an amusing, moving, multilayered drama--a 30-minute version of The Cherry Orchard, if you will, with a happy ending--thanks in no small part to Michael Halberstam's gifts as a naturalistic director.
The worst is a mildly amusing curtain-raiser called "The Evils of Tobacco," adapted from one of Chekhov's stories: Aaron H. Alpern performs it so badly it's hard to tell whether Chekhov and Frayn's jokes are just bad or Alpern has only made them seem so. The Proposal, a one-act about a half-baked marriage proposal, falls somewhere in the middle: a weak script is further weakened by indifferent performances from Adrianne Cury and Scott Parkinson.