Viktor Slavkin's play "cerceau," making its english language debut at arena stage, is chekhov for the 1980s. Written nearly a century after Chekhov's masterpieces, "Cerceau" suggests that the intervening years haven't altered the thematic concerns of Soviet playwrights, or at least of Mr. Slavkin. This drama is about a group of people who gather at a country house on the outskirts of Moscow; they are beset by the same type of frustrated hopes and ambitions as the characters in, say, "Uncle Vanya." The chief distinction is that most of the "Cerceau" characters are undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis, exacerbated by the repressive pre-glasnost atmosphere in the Soviet Union in 1983, when the play takes place.
Rooster -- played by Charles Geyer as an ill-at-ease sort who must struggle to express himself -- has inherited this house from his aunt; he selected his houseguests on the basis of shared loneliness.
Like their Chekhovian counterparts, few of the "Cerceau" crowd have experienced life as fully as they once intended. Rooster's friend Pasha is a historian who works as an upholsterer; David Marks makes him seem like the best adjusted member of the group, but then reveals him to be the most selfish. Several other houseguests are refugees from failed marriages, including Rooster's former lover, played with fragile pride by Randy Danson. Only John Leonard Thompson's wacky but mysterious Lars appears to have seen the world, but he also appears to be a liar.
One glorious scene almost breaks the naturalistic Chekhovian mold. Seated at an outdoor banquet table reading ancient love letters written by Rooster's aunt, the group begins, one by one, to recite imaginary letters to each other. Although the intended recipients cannot hear these letters, their body language suggests an almost telepathic response. Deftly directed by Liviu Ciulei -- who also designed the beautiful set -- this scene sparkles structurally and thematically, but like the characters' dreams, its promise doesn't carry into the rest of the play.
Other than this magical moment, "Cerceau" -- the title refers to a game of hoops and sticks, which Rooster and his friends find in the attic -- falls victim to the same pitfalls as too many productions of Chekhov. Overflowing with extended monologues, it conveys a sense of ennui, projected all too effectively on the audience.
The script is also rife with prolonged passages that provoke laughter in the characters on stage for reasons that remain largely obscure to the audience. Maybe the Russians have a different sense of humor, but translators Fritz Brun and Laurence Maslon might have made more of an effort to let us in on the jokes.
If the comparisons to Chekhov sound overstated, consider this. At one point, an old man -- played by Richard Bauer with his usual peculiar mannerisms -- announces: "My life -- I missed it." It cannot be coincidence that this mimics the lament of the elderly servant in "The Cherry Orchard": "Life has slipped by as though I hadn't lived." Perhaps Mr. Slavkin is suggesting Soviet life hasn't changed. Apparently, neither has its theater.
When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Through Dec. 2.
Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue, S.W., Washington.
Call: (202) 488-3300.