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Theater: Bawdy Laughter, Beckoning Doom Wild Honey

3 minute read
William A. Henry III

There is no such thing, alas, as a new play by Anton Chekhov, and certainly not one written in English rather than his native Russian. But Adapter Michael Frayn has achieved the satisfying illusion of one in Wild Honey, a dizzyingly funny romantic farce culled from Chekhov’s untitled, and by most estimates unproducible, first extant play. Frayn is best known in the U.S. as the playwright of Noises Off, a slapstick send-up of British sex comedy, and Benefactors, a regretful recollection of the relations between two young professional couples. Wild Honey marries the wry and the rowdy strains in Frayn’s writing and at the same time prefigures Chekhov’s later plays, notably The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull. The joys this collaboration offers, however, are as much visceral as literary. In chronicling the tomfoolery of a village intellectual, half charmer, half malcontent, Wild Honey provides nonstop bawdy laughter followed by a silencing leap into the abyss.

When Chekhov, then 21, finished the play, he brought it to an actress. After the play was rejected, perhaps because its diffuse narrative would take six to seven hours to stage, he destroyed his manuscript. Another copy, found after his death, has given rise to several adaptations. Frayn’s, which lasts 2 1/2 hours, shifts the focus from the leading lady to a man, the schoolteacher Platonov, and provides a wondrous star turn for Ian McKellen, who won a 1981 Tony Award for his portrayal of Salieri in Amadeus.

As the beau ideal of a dusty country town, McKellen is all boisterous affection and puckish candor. From the moment he capers onto the stage, he seems infinitely more alive than everyone around him. No matter how thwarted or downcast, he never loses his vision of life as adventure rather than mere existence. But as his admirers gradually realize, the very boyish traits that make Platonov so appealing also render him irresponsible: unlike the safe and predictable dullards around him, he has simply never grown up. In the funniest yet most poignant scene, he feverishly debates whether to stay faithful to his wife (Kate Burton) or sneak off to join a handsome widow who has urged a liaison (Kathryn Walker), when who should appear on his doorstep but an old flame (Kim Cattrall), now his best friend’s new bride, to whom he impulsively proposed elopement in a stupor after lunch. Doors slam; people hop out from bushes and then back behind them; Platonov carries on simultaneous conversations, and the wrong people hear him. This might be French bedroom farce, except that lives are at stake. Whatever Platonov decides, his little world will not reach equilibrium again.

Wild Honey originated at Britain’s National Theater. This staging reunites much of the same creative team, including Director Christopher Morahan (TV’s The Jewel in the Crown) and Set Designer John Gunter, who delightfully fills the stage with fireworks, birch forests, rustic homes and railroad cars — the last achieved with special effects cheerily akin to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disney World. The one vital element not imported was the cast surrounding McKellen. Fortunately, the unevenness of the American replacements barely affects the savor of Wild Honey.

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