In one ofáthe best scenes ináLevitin's show, Stanislav Sukharev argues over the philosophical properties ofáaáhat.
Yevgeny Lyulyukin / Wingwave.ru
There are writers who hide from their public for years, for decades and maybe even for centuries. Nikolai Erdman isáone ofáthem.
He was one ofáthe most important playwrights and screenwriters ofáthe 1920s, helping Soviet theater and cinema get onátheir feet. Heáwrote plays for the great theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold and scripts for the fashionable film director Grigory Alexandrov. Heáwas aápoet, the author ofápopular comic sketches, circus routines and song lyrics.
However, Erdman was arrested iná1933áand exiled for writing anti-Soviet texts. Heánever rose toápublic prominence again.
He died ináMoscow iná1970, aávirtual unknown. His famous 1925 play The Warrant had been staged only once ináthe last 45 yearsá his masterwork, The Suicide, was first staged ináSweden only months before his death. Most ofáthe writing heádid for cinema was semi-anonymous, while the sketches and routines that were soápopular ináthe 1920s naturally disappeared.
Today the world knows Erdman asáthe author ofáThe Warrant and The Suicide. Experts may know him asáthe screenwriter for Alexandrov's Jolly Fellows and Volga-Volga, two ofáthe most popular Russian musical comedies ináhistory. But few know anything about the two oráthree dozen other films made from his scripts.
All ofáthis leads directly into Mikhail Levitin's Who Wrote This Nonsense? atáthe Hermitage Theater.
Levitin, aáconnoisseur ofáall things eccentric, put together aárag-tag show ofásnippets and scraps drawn from Erdman's oeuvre. Woven into scenes drawn from sketches, fables and even Erdman's personal correspondence are several monologues from The Suicide. Although the show runs over three hours, itámoves quickly because itáisábroken down into about two dozen separate sections.
The result isáaáshow that says much more about Levitin than about Erdman. Levitin's eclecticism, his love ofáabsurdities, his flirtations with lowly cabaret orámusic-hall aesthetics are all here ináforce. What Iásaw little ofáwas Erdman.
Things begin onáaápromising note when two clown-like figures emerge toáhaggle over the philosophical properties ofáaáhat. These are Stanislav Sukharev and Viktor Nepomnik performing anáinterlude that Erdman wrote for aáproduction ofáLev Gurych Sinichkin atáthe Vakhtangov Theater ináthe 1920s. Itáhas all ofáthe paradox, twisted logic and lyricism that Erdman built into all ofáhis works. The actors give itáanáaffectionate reading.
From there onáout, however, the show's successes are more checkered.
Most suspect are the excerpts from The Suicide, with Yevgeny Kulakov performing the character ofáthe supposedly suicidal Semyon Podsekalnikov. Funny, unsettling and tragic ináthe original play, these scenes struggle toámake sense asácomic sketches presented completely out ofácontext.
The unevenness ofáthe production isáexemplified ináits longest segment, aáparodical piece called Othello, or, The Stomach Incision, originally written for the Satire Theater ináthe early 1930s. Asálong asáthe scene clings toáShakespeare's text, itáisáineffectual atábest. Only when the story isáturned over toáaáhapless doctor (Irina Bogdanova) trying toáheal aásick worker does Erdman's natural mix ofáwacky comedy and lyricism come into focus.
Among the reasons for Erdman's arrest were several pungent, satirical fables written with his friend Vladimir Mass ináthe early 1930s. They spoofed everything from food shortages and modern sexual mores toáthe work habits ofáJosef Stalin. These were soápopular atáthe time that they went viral ináMoscow, toáuse aápithy, contemporary term.
Levitin works several ofáthem into his show byáhaving aáquartet ofámen inátuxes recite them ináunison with aágreat deal ofápomp and irony.
Scenes are often tied together byáthe pianist Andrei Semyonov, who helps the actors remember their lines when they forget them and lends his tinkly tunes toásong and dance routines.
Designer Harry Hummel pulled aálarge chunk ofáseats out ofáthe middle ofáthe auditorium, allowing for performances toátake place among the audience, and heáerected aácheap, amateur-looking platform and curtain ináthe middle ofáthe stage. The problem with imitation cheap isáthat itáisáoften hard toátell from the real thing. The setting often makes this show look like itáwas thrown together without much thought.
If you have never heard ofáNikolai Erdman, Who Wrote This Nonsense? will likely not encourage you toálearn more.
Who Wrote This Nonsense? (Kto Avtor Etogo Bezobrazia?) plays Sun., March 19 and 28 atá7áp.m. atáthe Hermitage Theater, located atá3áKaretny Ryad. Metro Chekhovskaya. Tel. 650-2076, 650-6742. www.ermitazh.theatre.ru. Running time: 3áhours, 10 minutes.