Anna Lentz and Alexander Sokovikov
by Arney Rosenblat
both plays examine different aspects of love -- the first by Chekhov that of
eros or romantic love and the second by Tolstoy that of agape or self
sacrifice, charitable love such as God for man and man for God
-- underlying both works is the tug of war between social reformer and artist
which is likely what drew the diversified actor, playwright, screenwriter and
progressive activist Miles Malleson (1888-1969) to these short stories in the
first place. Malleson embraced these fellow writers as humanists driven by
questions about the role of art, and the duties of the artist, in times of
social and political transformation.
explored an England reeling from World War I, as well as divided by class
and gender. Chekhov and Tolstoy chronicled a pre-Revolutionary Russia confronted by a changing social order following the 1861 abolition of serfdom and
they were driven by a "deep sense of duty to their fellows."
Tolstoy even proposed a "universal art" that would "unite men
with God and with one another."
he wrote the four plays that attained his theatrical immortality, Anton Chekhov
had already written some five hundred short stories, the Artist's Story
among them. The Artist is Malleson's adaptation of that story. It
debuted in 1919 and tells the story of Nicov (played to perfection by the
Russian actor Alexander Sokovikov) a painter who encounters two different women
while trying to find meaning again in his work as an artist after retreating to
the country estate of a wealthy contact.
Lentz and Brittany Anikka Liu
first is Genya (Anna Lentz) a pretty, good natured girl who passes time by reading
and is attracted to what she perceives as the artist's worldliness, and the
second, her dogmatic older sister Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) who ridicules the
artist and questions the value of landscape paintings such as his in a world
where people are poor and hungry. She herself has devoted her entire life to
charitable endeavors. Her exchanges with Nicov reflect an icy passion.
(to Genya): "I'm afraid your sister thinks it a terrible waste of time,
(avoiding a direct answer): "it's very pretty."
"I think you'd like it better if there were a peasant or two in it -
without showing the disgraceful conditions under which they live."
"One might do a great deal of good like that - if only the rich people of Moscow
and the towns could see for themselves how the poor live, things might be
sees her efforts as a near useless bandage to the social and spiritual ills
weighing down the world around them, which needs a new religion "founded
on truth and love."
"..all the dispensaries, the schools, the libraries, these things are only
aggravating the slavery of those out there. The peasants are fettered
down by great chains..And are you helping to break the chains?..No, you're
adding fresh links to them."
the artist's visit to their estate is Genya and Lidia's mother (Katie
Firth) the consummate idle rich matron whose required smile hides her own
unvoiced feelings. Together the sisters bring the painter to a new awakening of
himself and his world.
the second Malleson play adaption Michael, which debuted in 1917, it is
based on the Tolstoy short story What Men Live By and tells the
religious parable of a Russian peasant couple whose lives are forever
changed by their charity to a mysterious stranger with odd ways and a
mysterious smile. It reflects Tolstoy's dedication to living out a
Christian pacifism based on personal conscience. In the story, Simon (J. Paul
Nicholas), a bootmaker, takes pity on a bedraggled homeless presumed beggar
(Malik Reed) and brings him home. At first his wife Matryona (Katie
Firth) is livid because of the additional burden it places on their poor
household but then relents when she's taken by the stranger's great needs
and later by his penetrating smile.
Burrows, Malik Reed and J Paul Nicholas
stranger's name is Michael and he becomes a helpful assistant to Nicholas
building the family's business and reputation. When a rich arrogant
nobleman arrives with the leather for a prestigious order of boots which if not
executed to his specifications could have dire consequences for the craftsmen,
Michael ignores his directive after he departs, apparently destroying the
leather by cutting it for another purpose. Shortly thereafter, the family
learns the count has died in an accident and Michel has in fact cut the leather
for its intended use. Shortly thereafter another client arrives, a mother
(Katie Firth) with two adopted daughters, one of whom is disabled, whom she
raised with tender love after death took their parents.
Sokovikov, Katie Firth and J Paul Nicholas
prescience is ultimately explained in Sunday sermon fashion when all learn that
Michael is in fact an errant angel sent to earth to learn What dwells in
man? What is not given to man? What do men live by? As he
learns the answers to these questions, he is lit up by a smile as he knows that
he will once more be able to return home to heaven.
"Light shines from me because I have been punished and now I am
forgiven...I was sent to earth to learn three truths and I have learned
them. One I learned when your wife pitied me..The second I learned when
the rich man ordered the boots..and now I have learned the third truth"...
your wife "brought me food.. she had become alive..I saw God. And I
remembered my first lesson 'Learn What Dwells in Man,' And I understood that in
man dwells Love - and I smiled the first time. "
a year later, "A man came to order boots..And I saw behind his shoulder..the
Angel of Death..And I remembered my second lesson, 'Learn What's not
given to man.' It is not given to man to know his own needs. And I smiled
the second time.
year passed. And there came the little girls with the woman: and I heard how
they had been kept alive, and I knew that I had learned the third truth - and I
smiled again...I have learnt that all men live, not by care for themselves but
by Love." With this thought the angel Michael
up the essence of the parable as "It is love alone by which they
for Alexander Sokovikov, who provides a truly compelling performance in his
roles as the artist in the Chekhov story and the nobleman in the Tolstoy story,
most of the other actors are adequate to the responsibilities of their roles
though they appear somewhat miscast. The nonagenerian Vinie Burrows is
charming as the family servant Anuiska in Michael, adding one of the only
touches of humor in the overall somber production but her performance seems out
of sync with the tone of the play.
Bank, artistic director of the Mint, and Jane Shaw, sound designer, effectively
direct The Artist and Michael, respectively, while Roger Hanna,
Oana Botez and Matthew Richards handle the sets, costume and lighting. A
nice inventive touch is the backdrop which features a lush tree in autumn
blush, perhaps representing something of Nicov's creation, for The Artist
which scrolls up to a complex entanglement of roots for Michael.
put it kindly both short stories by Chekhov and Tolstoy and their resulting
adaptations by Malleson, an accomplished playwright demonstrated by works such
as Conflict and Unfaithfully Yours spotlighted earlier by the
Mint Theater, are minor, though pleasant, achievements. This leaves
a respectful plea to the Mint creative management team which for decades has
established such a high artistic bar for uncovering and rejuvenating forgotten
theatrical gems that fans will book productions on the mere learning of the
Mint's interest. Please take a step back and review your creative plans
for future productions. The word mediocre should never need to be uttered
when citing the name of the Mint.
Theater Company at Theatre Row
W. 42nd Street
time: 90 minutes