FATE is cruel to TALKING THINGS OVER WITH CHEKHOV. The Free Association Theatre Ensemble’s no-frills production of playwright and screenwriter John Ford Noonan’s 1987 backstage comedy, which debuted on Aug. 26-28 in the tiny West End Theatre at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro and continues on Sept. 2-4 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham and on Sept. 9-11 at the Page-Walker Arts & History Center in Cary, is supposed to be a hilarious two-hander about the rocky relationship between failed actor-turned-playwright Jeremy Melvin (Chris Brown) and retired actress-turned-bored housewife Marlene Dumler (Nicola Lefler), a former Broadway star who wants to twinkle again, even brighter this time.
When Marlene finds out that Jeremy has turned their failed romance into a promising play, she quickly realizes this may be an ideal comeback vehicle for her. After all, what could be easier than playing yourself eight times a week. But Jeremy, who’s still bitter about their breakup two-and-a-half years ago, will take a lot of convincing to hand over his first play to Marlene and hang all his future hopes on a woman who broke his heart into a million little pieces.
The Chekhov in the title of TALKING THINGS OVER WITH CHEKHOV is esteemed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, whom the now clean and sober and ostensibly reliable Jeremy claims as a ghostly friend and advisor — think the title character of HARVEY. No doubt if director Noelle Barnard were directing that Mary Chase’s classic comedy about hard-drinking Elwood P. Dowd and his imaginary friend, a six-foot-three white rabbit named Harvey, she would have a tall actor in a rabbit suit carousing with Elwood.
In TALKING THINGS OVER WITH CHEKHOV, Barnard has made Chekhov a graffiti-scribbling third character, played by Julie-Kate Cooper, and added a fourth character: Chekhov’s friend countryman, the legendary novelist Leo Tolstoy, portrayed by FATE founder Julya M. Mirro. This gender-blind casting is disconcerting, to say the least. Moreover, it adds nothing to the production, because the characters are funnier imagined than depicted in the flesh — and impersonated by women — and Barnard even gives Chekhov and Tolstoy a big peasant dance number that is more ridiculous than sublime.
Meanwhile, Chris Brown gives his usual fusspot performance as Jeremy — think Walter Mitty seething, with a squint and a mean streak — and the formidable Nicola Lefler puts on her usual airs as Marlene. The bottom line is that neither Brown nor Lefler is particularly convincing and, worse, they have no chemistry, so the idea that they might rekindle romantic sparks is laughable, and not in a good way.
SECOND OPINION: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the August 25th TRIANGLE THEATER REVIEW preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2010/08/free-association-theatre-ensemble-presents-john-ford-noonans-offbeat-comedy-talking-things-over-with-chekhov/.
Free Association Theatre Ensemble presents TALKING THINGS OVER WITH CHEKHOV at 8 p.m. Sept. 2-4 at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705; and 8 p.m. Sept. 9-11 in the Page-Walker Arts & History Center, 119 Ambassador Loop, Cary, North Carolina 27513.
The Play: http://www.samuelfrench.com/store/product_info.php/products_id/181 (Samuel French, Inc.).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.