Mike Nichols and Elaine May used to do a 10-second summary of Dostoevsky in which May laughed hysterically for nine seconds, after which Nichols, who had been regarding her in horror, exclaimed, "Unhappy woman!"
This is roughly what happens in "Zoya's Apartment," a 1926 play by the Russian satirist Mikhail Bulgakov. The play begins with a satiric, almost farcical view of aristocrats and nervous bourgeois scrambling to keep afloat in Moscow in the early Soviet years. What begins as comedy ends in murder and police repression.
What happens on the stage of Circle in the Square, however, is comedy of a different sort, a grotesque instance of cross-cultural ineptitude.
To do "Zoya's Apartment" well would have required a first-rate director with a flair for comedy, but, more important, an ability to get actors to probe character, particularly the Russian character, which seems to breed the kind of intensity and contradictions Nichols and May spoofed.
Circle in the Square, in a modish gesture, imported a Soviet director, Boris Morozov, whose credentials are impressive but whose English is minimal. Comedy is too difficult to direct if you are insensitive to the nuances of the actors' speech.
Moreover, Morozov has not even been able to impart to the production details that might give it cultural authenticity. An important part of the final sequence, for example, has to do with the color of shoes KGB men wear. A Russian friend I brought to the play explained to me that in the early Soviet period you could always tell foreigners in Moscow by the quality of their shoes. The natives wore cheap, unsubstantial shoes of a hideous orange color. Here the shoes are of a trendy yellow that makes no sense.
But virtually nothing about the production seems Russian. Nothing suggests a city only recently ravaged by civil war. The title refers to the apartment of a scheming woman who, under the guise of being a fashionable dressmaker, is running a brothel.
When her girls parade in a "fashion show," it looks like a poor man's Vegas, not the sort of display that would have been feasible (and, in its tackiness, funny) in a poverty-stricken city.
The only actors who convey some sense of Russia are Robert LuPone, who has an aristocratic aloofness, and Robert Stattel, who has the almost funny quality of desperation Nichols and May mocked. Linda Thorson is a skilled comic actress but far too poised for her circumstances here. Bronson Pinchot does nothing beyond cute, tiresome shtick. Ray DeMattis is funny as a greedy landlord but there is not enough of the peasant bullying his former masters.
There is a lovely backdrop based on the original 1926 design. It has a flavor woefully lacking everywhere else.
Context is all. When "Zoya's Apartment" played in Moscow in 1926, it must have been an extremely audacious event - enough to get novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov banned three years later, a suppression that stayed in effect right up into the '60s, 20 and more years after his death at 49 in 1940. (Stalin did let him be assistant director and literary advisor of the Moscow Art Theater.)
"Zoya's Apartment," which opened last night at the Circle-in-the-Square (uptown) in a new English translation, its American actors directed by Boris Morozov of Moscow's Maly Theater - he speaks minimal English, and did it through body language and a translator - is a satire about survival in the Soviet bureaucratic Eden. Now that that Eden is breaking into a million pieces, the play again has a certain relevance, though it is markedly dated.
Then again, I suppose "Ninotchka" is dated - except that it isn't, and, dealing with some of the same absurdities, it has a lighter touch.
The chief survivors are two: the beauteous Zoya, a "socially dangerous element" who wheedles and bribes her way to obtaining from the local party boss the papers enabling her to turn her cherished apartment with its forbidden bedroom ("Bedrooms are not permitted in the Soviet Union") into a fashion salon, in other words a small, classy brothel; and her "cousin," or quondam lover, the raffish mountebank Aleksander Tarsovich Ametistov, a bad penny who turns up with his battered suitcase at just the right moment to be appointed the dandified manager of her "salon." Sole contents of the suitcase: six decks of playing cards "and some portraits of our leaders that I sold for 26 kopecks apiece when I needed to save my life."
To this rather cheerless looking apartment there also comes one of life's losers, the haughty, cocaine-addicted Count - or "former Count" - Pavel Fyodorovich Abolyaninov. "Former Count," he complains. "Where did I go?"
What can he do in Zoya's new establishment? "You can play the piano," she says, removing the lace cover from the red lacquer piano center stage. "But they will give me tips," he exclaims. "I cannot challenge everyone who gives me a 10-kopeck piece to a duel." Later, in a confrontation with Goose, the crass party boss who has arranged Zoya's papers and who is now waving around fistfuls of money, the Count coldly says: "When things change, when the times are different, I'll have my seconds call on you." "Oh good," says the unabashed Goose, "I'll give them some money too."
Zoya really does design dresses, and one of her customers, the equally beauteous Alla Vadimovna, is in debt to her for 2000 rubies. "Squeeze her," says the raffish cousin, and Zoya, with many a delicacy of approach, squeezes. She will wipe out the debt and more - "In four months you'll be walking down the Champs Elysees" - in return for "a job right here as a model. You'll work every other day - and only at night."
A light goes on. The shaken Alla Vadimovna calls Zoya a devil, but says she'll do it. Thus, in the Soviet state - as in any other state - does the female body also figure in survival.
Payoff comes when, during the hanky-panky of a "fashion show," Goose and Alla - for whom, we learn, he had been ready to leave his wife and two children - come face to face. Payoff also comes through a couple of comic though murderous Chinese laundrymen, both of whom lust for Zoya's maid Manyushka - a sideplot that might have been dispensed with without loss. And, of course, during the height of the revels, three members of the Secret Police show up in tuxedos to snoop out malfeasance. "Please remember," the Count icily informs them, "that with tuxedos, one never wears yellow shoes." "I told you we should have worn the brown shoes," says one agent to another, in a predictable line.
Much funnier, to me, was Colleen Gallagher's small moment doing an on-the-nose imitation of Garbo as one of the "models." All the acting is good: slim, lovely Linda Thorson - sort of a young Maureen O'Hara - as Zoya; Robert LuPone as the world-weary Count; Bronson Pinchot as the irrepressible "cousin"; Robert Stattel as Goose; Lauri Landry as Alla Vadimovna. Comrade Morozov's direction seems sure if not swift. It's quite a long evening. You have to keep thinking about 1926.
It may well be possible for a Soviet director, even one who doesn't speak English, to parachute into the United States and successfully re-create a celebrated Moscow production with American actors unschooled in Russian theatrical styles. But the more likely result of such a hands-across-the-water cultural experiment is typified by Boris A. Morozov's production of Mikhail Bulgakov's ''Zoya's Apartment'' at the Circle in the Square. Mr. Morozov is resident director of the Maly Theater in Moscow. His New York cast is headed by such actors as Bronson Pinchot, of television's ''Perfect Strangers,'' and Robert LuPone, of ''A Chorus Line.'' In ''Zoya's Apartment,'' East and West do not so much meet as smash their heads against a wall as formidable as Berlin's once was.
This is a well-meaning botch, redeemed only by Linda Thorson, the sole keeper of Bulgakov's flame in a large cast, and by the fascination of the play itself. That fascination will be lost, however, on those who do not arrive at the theater with some knowledge of Soviet politics and drama in the 1920's and of the literary style of Bulgakov, who is best known for his satirical novels ''The Master and Margarita'' and ''Heart of a Dog.'' When a production is this impotent at revealing the heart of a text, a theatergoer must amuse himself by imagining the director's good intentions rather than by taking seriously the misfires actually occurring on stage.
''Zoya's Apartment'' was first presented at the Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow in 1926, which was neither the best of times nor the worst in the still-embryonic history of the Soviet Union. The post-Revolution euphoria had dimmed. The Stalinist lid had not quite been nailed shut. The banning of Bulgakov's writing was still three years away. Much as seems to be the case in the Soviet Union now, the mid-1920's was a period of true flux, of mixed emotions, conflicted loyalties, wild uncertainties. That unsettling amalgam of euphoria and fear is bottled in the dark comedy of ''Zoya's Apartment.''
Set in a clandestine bordello populated by all manner of displaced and newfangled Russian types, from a ruined czarist aristocrat to meddling party bureaucrats, the play is equally sarcastic about the corruption of the old and new regimes and is more than a little worried about the future. The Muscovites of ''Zoya's Apartment'' dream of emigrating to Paris almost as much as Chekhov's provincials of a quarter-century earlier fantasized about getting to Moscow. And no one more than Ms. Thorson's Zoya. She will stop at nothing, from bribery to flesh-peddling, to escape a society she begins to suspect is a trap.
Ms. Thorson brings unexpected depths to this woman, who is at once a brassy comic madam (her brothel is disguised as a dressmaking shop) and a courageous survivor. One believes she has the entrepreneurial flair to recruit ''models'' and customers as well as the cunning to outsmart the officials who would shut her down. But as the walls close in during the waning scenes, Zoya becomes a braver heroine. Long after her husband, a former count played by Mr. LuPone, retreats into depression and drug addiction, she retains a hunger for life. When Ms. Thorson bids a final, tear-tinged farewell to her smashed apartment, she could be departing Chekhov's cherry orchard, so much does her mixture of regret and triumph suggest the passing of an epoch.
By contrast, Mr. LuPone labors to simulate an Old World nobility, sometimes by walking so rigidly he could have a yardstick for a spine. He fills in the count's melancholy with a repertory of mournful expressions and his snobbishness with sneering intonations. It is, at least, a game effort, and it comes closest to credibility when Mr. LuPone sits at a red piano to sing a sad Russian song. As the bordello's manager, a confidence man who will exploit the Reds and the Whites alike for opportunism's sake, Mr. Pinchot substitutes a monotonous, energetic raising of his voice and arms for comic invention. This talented actor has been and could be much funnier with helpful direction.
Aside from Ernest Abuba, who professionally delivers a demeaning Chinese caricature belonging to the play's time, the rest of the acting is dreadful. Mr. Morozov is hardly the first Russian director to fail to mesh with American actors; Yuri Lyubimov's ''Crime and Punishment'' at Arena Stage in Washington a few years ago was similarly unrealized by most of its cast. Perhaps an American director would have the same problem directing Russian actors to perform David Mamet in Russian in Moscow, unless the rehearsal time was of Moscow Art Theater proportions.
In ''Zoya's Apartment,'' even Mr. Morozov's stagecraft is lost in translation. Those familiar with Soviet theatrical idioms will know what the director is getting at with his stylized use of music and his deployment of ominous extras behind a scrim, but anyone else is likely to be baffled by these flourishes, given their clumsy execution here. As for Bulgakov's wit, about the only humor to survive in this staging are the lowest of bosom and rump gags. It is not praise to say that this is a ''Zoya's Apartment'' Stalin might have been more inclined to chuckle at than to ban.