The Sneeze | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Sneeze, Terrapin Theatre, at Chicago Dramatists. A sadistic bully psychologically tormenting a helpless victim is an unlikely premise for comedy. The usually capable Terrapin Theatre crew seem to think so, too. And so any humor to be found in Chekhov's favorite interpersonal dynamic--which figures in five of the eight short pieces that comprise translator-adapter Michael Frayn's The Sneeze--remains hidden throughout most of this disappointing production. Instead of creating characters and contexts to make Chekhov's battle of the classes more palatable to an egalitarian American audience, the directors and performers merely walk through the material, occasionally inserting comic shtick only vaguely connected to the action. Terrapin's framing device--the plays seem to be presented by a down-and-out Russian company--might excuse their provincial tone and shabby furnishings, but this conceit is too spotty and undefined for us to be sure that that's the company's intention.

Fortunately the production's pedestrian approach is not pervasive. In Scott Letscher's staging of "The Proposal," Franette Liebow and Dominic Conti generate an appropriately cartoonish chemistry, the agile Conti earning most of the laughs with his body language. And in "The Inspector General," Chekhov's commentary on Gogol's classic farce, Casey Hayes and T.J. Cimfel achieve an adequately satirical tempo under Pam Dickler's direction. Michelle Landes's giddy, balalaika-driven music design introduces a ticklish, playful mood sorely lacking in the plodding scenes the tunes bridge.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

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