Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Coeurage Theatre Company
Through July 1
Playwright Boni B. Alvarez cunningly adapts Anton Chekhov’s 19th century drama “Ivanov,” shifting the setting from the Russian provinces to California’s own land of internal exile (that is, if you’re a gay man of a certain age), Palm Springs. It’s often tough to transpose Chekhov’s quintessentially Russian themes of longing, apathy, and inertia to an American context — but Alvarez manages to hit just the right tone, crafting an adaptation that’s artful while also oddly in sync to our present world.
He takes all the familiar Chekhovian archetypes and plops them right in the desert. Amongst an expat Russian community in Palm Springs is Nicky (Cyrus Wilcox), a software designer whose creative spark has dried up. Nicky is nursing his beautiful but dying wife Anna (Sandy Velasco) whom he brought over from the Phillippines but has mostly lost interest in. Nicky owes a great deal of money to Zina (Emily Swallow), the prickly wife of Nicky’s best friend Pavel (Daniel Kaemon) — but rather than come up with a strategy for paying her off, he descends into mawkish self-pity that stems from his inability to care about his wife’s impending demise, as well as his own middle-age anomie.
To make matters even more complicated, Pavel’s just-turned 21-year-old son Sasha (Chris Aguila) has developed a crush on Nicky, whom he perceives as experienced and mature. In reality, Nicky is so steeped in self-sabotaging misery and self-absorption that he’s incapable of bringing anything but despair to everyone around him.
It’s all rather heady stuff — in fact, there are a lot of sad moments in this thoughtful, brooding production, which is directed by Beth Lopes and takes place on Benoit Guerin’s blazing bright sun-swept set. Vodka is downed like it’s Evian, while the talk turns to how bored and unfulfilled everyone is. Palm Springs has never seemed more like a place where people go when their dreams have died and they have little else to do but rot.
Alvarez’s writing also echoes Chekhov’s deep compassion, with humor and gentleness mixed amongst the darker scenes. His dialogue is tight and funny — peppered with trenchant satirical references to modern technology like Tinder and cell phones, along with samovars and Russian herring. The result is a wonderfully subtle mix of Russian sadness and comedy, but with a weirdly Californian sensibility. It’s a production that is heartfelt and powerful.
With his midlife despair and thwarted dreams, Wilcox’s Nicky exudes a modern edginess that has us thinking he might extract himself from his situation – but the character’s needs and narcissism get in his own way. The scenes involving Aguila’s besotted Sasha offers an innovative riff on doomed and unrequited love. And as the brittle Zina, angry with Nicky for forcing her to become the sort of loan collector she loathes, Swallow executes a powerful turn.
Like the Chekhov plays it emulates, this artful drama features several beautifully drawn supporting characters, and they are wonderfully depicted — from Velesco as Anna, Nicky’s’ lovely lost wife, to Mark Jacobson as a parasitic college friend of Sasha’s. There’s also a beautifully elegiac turn by Ted Barton as Nicky’s first generation Russian uncle, and by Nardeep Khurmi as the family doctor who nurses a desperate love for Nicky’s dying wife.
Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Blvd, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through July 1. 323-673-0544 or http://greenwaycourttheatre.org/nicky. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.