Chekhov should probably be banned in our schools. Our drama schools, anyway. I had never thought of the Russian master as a poisonous influence, exactly; just a goal sometimes approached but never attained. But after witnessing the pretentiously spare-looking, but by no means brief, "Scenes and Revelations" which opened last night at the uptown Circle in the Square's final offering of the season, I'm for keeping Anton out of the hands of fledgling playwrights. Maybe Thornton Wilder, as well.
Elan Garonzik's play, which has been kicked around Off Off Broadway and in regional theaters for several years now, is a kind of "Our Towns" (the plural is intentional, as you'll see) reverberating with loud echoes of "The Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard."
Set on a bare wood stage on a few levels, and taking place in the latter part of the 19th Century, it shifts back and forth in time and place. And while we can be fairly certain we're in and around the Longnecker family farm in Lancaster, Pa., most of the time, with little side visits to a Nebraska farm and Manchester, England, it's deucedly difficult to pick out the stages in the sister's lives (there are actually four sisters) and their separate lovers, since the latter are all played by the same actor (oh, we can spot young Dr. Zeigler, all right, because he wears a white smock and walks with his hands clasped behind his back).
All these promising young women, who seem to carry on most of their affairs out in the fields, are either spurned or else they reject their suitors, until in the end they decide to take advantage of the terms of their rich uncle's will, which specifies that they either push off for Manchester and make use of the fortune in textiles the old boy has piled up or else lose the whole bundle to an orphanage.
When the writing doesn't create the odd impression of leading into a Rodgers and Hammerstein number ("If you loved me...," or, say, the love scene ending with the man observing the setting sun as "just a thin strip of red left at the bottom of the sky"), it falls into such lively constructions as "In a few months, I might just (pause) pop the question" or "I will not have it (her feelings) subjugated to your simple and frighteningly Puritan soul."
It's a nice cast. Marilyn McIntyre as Millie (she paints and dreams of Paris, not Moscow), Valerie Mahaffey as Rebeca (the youngest, she marries, moves to a Nebraska "hole," loses a child, and beats it back to Lancaster), Christine Lahti as Helena (Rebecca's return changes her mind about running off to California with the farm manager), and Mary Joan Negro (her doc, a strict Mennonite, couldn't possibly marry out of his religion)...they're all winsomely appealing in their shirtwaists and different personalities. Norman Snow is ardent and engaging as the farm manager and the struggling young owner of the adjoining farm who eventually buys the sisters' farm (yep, there goes the farm), and as a couple of other chaps, including the stern doc.
"Adieu! Adieu!," the sisters tenderly cry out to the old, sold homestead as, steamer trunks packed, they prepare to cross the ocean. I imagined I could hear axes lopping away at cherry trees. And wasn't that old Firs wandering on at the end, or just an elderly patron crossing the Circle's odd playing area as the lights came up! Beats me, the whole business.
Certain kinds of plays have certain kinds of times. A few years ago, it was the time of the black play. Today, I think it is the time of the feminist play. And when I say feminist, I don't mean any kind of political activity, but a feeling for women and their place in society, particularly, perhaps, their historical place in society.
Last night at the Circle in the Square Theater (uptown), we had a new play by the ambiguously named Elan Garonzik called Scenes and Revelations.
One of the most interesting things about this play is that Garonzik is a mister. Yet he certainly has a superb feeling and understanding of women. This is a play about women, about their loves, and about the way they feel about one another. Chekov wrote a play about three sisters, Garonzik has written a play about four sisters, and there is a certain something in common in their spirit.
Chekhov's sisters yearning to go to Moscow, are matched with Garonzik's sisters yearning to go either to England or to the West. The time of the play is the early 1890s, when the move to the West was beginning to be an impulsive factor in American society.
It's a curious point that Caucasians, whether of European or North American origin, have always had this instinctive desire to move West. This is partly what the play is about, but it is much more about the relationships between four sisters who are growing up at a turning point, indeed a changing point, in American society.
The scenes move rapidly through time, and the orphaned sisters, who have an uncle in Manchester, England, who wants them to go to him, are continually playing games with themselves and with men. Interestingly, the playwright has the men in their lives played by one man, who wanders through the play like some archetypal bull in a china shop of the most delicate mystery.
What fascinates one about the play is its deep understanding of women and their relationships with men. The scenes are fairly familiar, but sometimes the revelations are quite shocking, and always they thump home with the shock of truth.
This is the first new play that Circle in the Square, now in its 30th season, has presented on Broadway for some years. And the production is simple and fluent. The scenery by Jane Thurn consists of nothing but wooden ramps, effective in themselves, neutral in their dramatic message, but useful in letting a play that exults in almost cinematic dissolve, have its way and movement. Costumes by Oleksa catch the period with a careful care, and the lighting by William Armstrong, very essential in this particular play and setting, has a authority that moves the play along its changing routes with exceptional ease.
The direction by Sheldon Epps runs along with the play, and interweaves with it. Epps and his actors have done a lovely job with a play that has a poignancy of women growing up in a man's world, and yet fighting to find themselves simply as women. The four sisters, Christine Lahti, Valerie Mahaffey, Marilyn McIntyre and Mary-Joan Negro, make such a loving quartet of sisters, that one wonders how they would tear themselves apart when the play is over.
The men were also pretty good. Indeed, more than pretty good, very good. Norman Snow played the multiple role of the men in their lives with just the right kind of nervy charm. In the other males roles, Joseph Warren and Nicholas Saunders bumbled into this woman's world with a charming eccentricity.
Garonzik has written a play that really does explore, without any political probing, the plight of women at the turn of the century, and their hopes.
There are as many revelations here as there are scenes.
There are no meaty scenes and no exciting revelations in Elan Garonzik's ''Scenes and Revelations,'' the play that opened at the Circle in the Square last night. This is an evening of splintery, arty tableaux vivants that delineate the broad outlines of a family drama without ever coalescing to become the drama itself. Because most of the tableaux are derivative of far superior plays, it comes as no great surprise to learn, courtesy of the Playbill, that Mr. Garonzik first created this work as a university master's project. ''Scenes and Revelations'' sums up a theatrical education without transcending it.
Mr. Garonzik's models are Chekhov, Wilder and O'Neill - with a few cloying excursions into the ersatz Americana of ''I Remember Mama.'' His play, which is set in the 1890's, tells of the melancholy lives and loves of the four contentious Longnecker sisters of Lancaster, Pa. Despite the locale, the women are Anglicans, not Mennonites, and despite the period, the language is timeless as only cliches can be. ''I remember being a girl - walking through the fields, the corn,'' says one of the sisters in a nostalgic mood. While the Longneckers are grown up now, the corn is still at least as high as their necks.
The play's fractionalized structure, with its many flashbacks and flash-forwards, can't disguise the mundane material. Stripped of its affectations, ''Scenes and Revelations'' is about how the four women try to break out of their tight family homestead after the death of their parents. Should they sell the farm to a local farmhand who wants to better himself? Should they marry their various suitors and go West? (''The whole country's moving West,'' we're told, and not just once.) Should they take the money they've inherited from a British uncle and emigrate to join him overseas?
On occasion, Mr. Garonzik does depart slightly from his prototypes. Not only does he provide one more sister than Chekhov does, but he also sets his provincials to dreaming of Manchester, not Moscow. What's more, the Longnecker orchards grow raspberries, not cherries - a relatively inventive touch by this writer's standards. Yet Mr. Garonzik, unlike a Lanford Wilson or Lillian Hellman, seems incapable of creating fresh characters or incidents to pull us through his Chekhovian variations. The people in ''Scenes and Revelations'' are at best skin-deep, and their predicaments are ready-made.
The sisters are pretty much defined by a few adjectives, which are forthrightly enumerated at the outset, never to be elaborated upon thereafter. ''I'm the prettiest of the Longneckers, but I'm also the stupidest,'' says Rebecca (Valerie Mahaffey), who eventually finds herself in a stupid marriage in Nebraska. Millie (Marilyn McIntyre) is the ''artiste'' (as she says at least four times), while Charlotte (Mary-Joan Negro) is the ''puritan.'' Helena (Christine Lahti), who runs the household, is ''very pretty and very smart.''
Rather than deepen these characters, Mr. Garonzik merely provides sentimental set pieces (a cathartic visit to the family graveyard, moonlit trysts among the raspberries) and, in Act II, melodramatic events (the deaths of minor characters and of love affairs). The convoluted structure is stylization for its own sake: since the characters don't develop psychologically, the scenes might as well be played in chronological order. Drama is provided by maudlin incidental music and by William Armstrong's lighting, which tends to start dimming a full 30 seconds before the most portentous scenes come to an end.
Along the way, the women all lose the men they love. It's hard to believe the plot reasons given for these heartbreaks; at times Mr. Garonzik seems to be mounting a stacked argument against what he regards as feminine pigheadedness. It doesn't help that each of the visible suitors is a nonentity, or that each is played by the same actor, the talented but wasted Norman Snow. Except as a cost-cutting measure, Mr. Snow's assignment makes no sense - for it merely compounds the bland interchangeability of the male characters. The only one with a distinctive voice is the rustic farmhand, who, upon sampling his first kiss, announces that it ''sure ain't like kissing Aunt Eleanor or hugging my horse.''
Sheldon Epps has directed the play on a bare, platformed stage. He adds his own tableaux to the playwright's: the sisters are frequently frozen in place, cradling one another or extending their arms to reach for an embrace. (Didn't Woody Allen parody such theatrical mannerisms into extinction in his film ''Love and Death''?) While Miss Mahaffey, Miss Lahti and Miss Negro are most appealing actresses, they have little to do but model Oleksa's attractive costumes. Miss McIntyre's ''artiste'' is overbearing, and Joseph Warren's uncle has no trace of a British accent.
The evening ends with the sisters finally leaving for ''a new life'' in the uncle's beloved Manchester - where, we're told, ''each day will last forever.'' While ''Scenes and Revelations'' fails to dramatize the Longneckers' lives in Lancaster, it all too sucessfully demonstrates just what their Manchester days will be like.