Dinner theater offers evening of Russian fare

Paragon: Founder pairs Chekhov, Simon segments in a show that exemplifies the way this venue tries to present something a little different.

April 27, 2000|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everything about the Paragon Theatre at Trifles Restaurant is off the beaten path: its secluded location in Crownsville, an exotic dinner menu, and a choice of seldom-done shows.

The intimacy of the restaurant and compactness of the stage -- about 8 feet by 10 feet in a theater that accommodates a maximum of 65 people -- combine for an experience far from the typical dinner theater buffet.

Trifles offers full-service dining with a choice of three appetizers and entrees, coffee and dessert. Patrons are not served by actors but by skilled servers, including an unobtrusively attentive waitress.

For the current show, "Russian Roulette: Neil Simon Duels Anton Chekhov," the menu selections have a Russian theme, with such appetizers as mushroom stew and entrees featuring chicken with a vodka and sour cream sauce.

That theme extends to recorded balalaika music and choral renditions of songs such as "The Volga Boatman" and "Dark Eyes."

It's all intended to complement Paragon founder Gregory Kemper's pairing of Chekhov's "The Brute" with five vignettes from Simon's rarely done play, "The Good Doctor," Simon's tribute to the 19th-century Russian dramatist-physician.

Of the evening's offerings, I most enjoyed the Chekov segment, with its dramatization of bill collector Smirnoff's visit to the home of the recently widowed Mrs. Popov and her manservant.

One month of mourning is long enough, according to the servant, who advises the widow to get on with her life while she is still young and beautiful enough to attract another husband. But Mrs. Popov, determined to show that "a wife can love and forgive" even an unfaithful husband like her own, wears her grief with pride.

Anti-feminist Smirnoff interprets the widow's grief as a ruse to avoid settling her husband's account. Discussions between Mrs. Popov and Smirnoff become more comical as they grow more heated, culminating in Smirnoff's challenging the young widow to a duel.

On opening weekend, director Kemper played the role of Smirnoff after the actor engaged for the role became ill. Kemper did well enough in what was only his second performance in the role.

Bill Hughes played the wily servant. Although Elisa Rodero's broad portrayal of Mrs. Popov was often over the top and too loud, she gave her character needed spunk.

Simon's segment "The Arrangement," detailing his teen-age experience when his father wanted him to lose his virginity but retain his innocence, was perhaps the evening's weakest. The actors -- Hughes as the father, Brian Mellen as the son, and Jen Kersey as the young prostitute -- were adequate as they explored the father-son relationship. Though Kersey brought an air of worldliness to her role, the segment lacked a bittersweet element.

In "The Audition," Kersey skillfully portrays a hopeful young actress from Odessa who cajoles an established writer-director in Moscow, equally well conveyed by Hughes, to give his complete attention to her audition.

"The Drowned Man" portrays a bored writer and a sailor who "drowns" on cue for a price. Mellen is convincing as the desperate sailor, drawing all the comic potential from the unusual plot. As the writer, Hughes again reveals his sure sense of comedic timing.

Although the actors displayed great physical agility, "The Surgery," centered on an encounter between an apprentice dentist and a sexton with a toothache, was mindless slapstick.

More successful was the last segment, "A Defenseless Creature," where Simon returns to Chekhov's theme of the manipulative, shrewish woman fighting to get assistance for her ailing husband by battling a hapless bank officer into submission. Rodero gives a sharp portrayal of the woman, and Kemper proved adept in his portrayal of bank officer Kistunov.

Although Paragon's recent productions of "The Gin Game" and "Lend Me a Tenor" were not standard dinner theater fare, they were more familiar than its current offering. But "Russian Roulette" provides off-beat humor, making for an enjoyable evening.

"Russian Roulette" continues on weekends through June 4 with dinner at 6 p.m. and shows at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and a 5 p.m. dinner and 7 p.m. show on Sundays. The ticket price is $35.

Information or reservations: 410-923-6600.

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