In John Ford Noonan’s Talking Things Over with Chekhov, the Free Association Theatre Ensemble (FATE) season opener, a pair of estranged lovers, Jeremy and Marlene, hold a series of voluble meetings on a bench in Central Park. Listening to them I was reminded of a friend who, on seeing Noonan’s most famous play about 25 years ago, referred to it as A Couple White Chicks Sitting Around Boring an Audience. He had no idea.
Three years after the fact, Jeremy has written a play about his break-up with Marlene. More than somewhat masochistically, she becomes intensely enamored of his script, maneuvers herself into its production in order to play herself and return to a once-promising theatrical career. He recounts his travails, aided and at times bedeviled by the shade of Anton Chekhov. The erstwhile lovers spar, re-open each other’s barely scabbed-over wounds, and….
Look: There are dramatic scripts whose meanings are deliberately enigmatic, so artfully woven into their fabric that they may elude one even as they yield up immediate pleasures in the watching. Only later, in rumination or discussion, do they reveal their ultimate design.
This play is not one of those.
I’m not sure what it is, or, more troubling, why. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for its meandering self-absorption, much less for Noonan’s dragging poor dead, defenseless old Chekhov into the mélange. Nor why the director of the FATE production, Noelle Barnard, has opted to personify both Chekhov, who never actually appears in Noonan’s two-hander, and Leo Tolstoy, (who, ditto) on-stage. As women, no less, the latter braying in a broad, almost Appalachian, accent. Barnard also takes additional liberties with a script that was first performed in 1990; this production contains a reference to September 11.
Late in Talking Things Over with Chekhov, one of the characters — I’ve forgotten which, but really, by then it hardly matters — observes, “Together we are two half-people who don’t add up to one.” You can say that again. Neither Marlene nor Jeremy is more than a collection of tics, recriminations, self-regard, and attitudinizing. Worse, Noonan’s dramaturgy is curiously dated — not from the 1980s but from some earlier dramatic epoch. His characters, neither of whom, it would seem, has access to anything so mundane as a telephone, speak only during planned meetings at the same park bench, and a prominent stage actor is named “Archer Valentine.” Excuse me. I misspoke. Such twee theatrical notions aren’t dated, they’re dead. And if a playwright’s characters are going to speak at length about the brilliance of the dialogue in his play-within-a-play, those words when revealed to us ought at least to aim for something above, on the one hand, the roundly commonplace and, on the other, the calculatedly shocking revelation which no longer shocks. If it ever did.
The performances, alas, are of little help in elevating the script above its own relentless drivel. Chris Brown’s Jeremy consists largely of a pained moue alternating with a little smirk of wholly unearned smugness. Marlene’s description of him as talking so fast “it sounds like another language” is, in this case, all too accurate; fully a third of his dialogue is lost, even in a small auditorium. Nicola Lefler’s Marlene is bright and appropriately oblivious to the character’s more appalling attitudes, but ultimately it is all surface.
In fairness to the FATE actors, I don’t know how any performer could breathe something approaching life into two such gaudy shells as these.
Talking Things Over with Chekhov opened at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro and played its second week at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre. It resumes Thursday-Saturday September 9-11 at the 8.00 p.m. in the Page-Walker Arts & History Center, 119 Ambassador Loop, in Cary. For details, see our calendar.