Collaborators, the 2012 Olivier Award winner for Best New Play, is a hugely entertaining dark comedy with moral power. John Hodge’s script fictionalizes the last years of Mikhail Bulgakov, the Russian writer who lived one of the 20th century’s most interesting (and saddest) literary lives, and his dealings with the dictator Joseph Stalin.
Best known today for the novel The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov, played here with subtle power by Brian J. Carter, had given up a medical career to become an influential writer of plays and prose. Yet he met with disappointment after disappointment, with many works banned and others receiving poor reviews. Still, Stalin was a fan, and had personally intervened to get Bulgakov a position at the prestigious Moscow Art Theater.
Hodge’s fancy is that a real late play of Bulgakov’s about Stalin’s early years was actually commissioned by the Soviet secret police – more or less at gunpoint – as a surprise for the dictator. When the playwright runs into writer’s block at the prospect of composing a propagandistic snow job, Stalin, who has found out about the assignment, summons him to a secret meeting, and the two commence a collaboration. With Bulgakov as advisor, Stalin himself writes the play, foisting in turn on the playwright some of the work of governance – including deciding who will starve and who will be arrested and murdered.
Played with honesty and acidic comedy in rapid, scintillating scenes by a top-notch cast under Peter Dobbins’s artfully economical direction, the North American premiere by the Storm Theatre Company shows why Collaborators won its plaudits across the pond. It has an old-fashioned Chekhovian sweep despite centering on a cramped, ill-supplied collective apartment. (One of the funniest moments is a direct reference to Chekhov himself.) It also has a diverting structure that keeps the audience on its toes, with funny-horrible dream scenes and comically overacted play-within-a-play segments bursting out between scenes of “real” action.
The fantastical side of Hodge’s imagination, seemingly inspired by Bulgakov’s own, shines throughout. Vladimir, the oily secret policeman (toweringly performed by Robin Haynes) who commissions Young Joseph, goes on to make himself its smarmy producer and director, unaware that he is acutely spoofing Russian theater’s pretentious underbelly. The lecherous doctor who diagnoses Bulgakov’s kidney disease – it killed the real Bulgakov – later declares it miraculously cured, though the action is set in 1938, just two years before the writer’s death. More grimly, Vladimir takes both Bulgakov and his wife Yelena (Erin Biernard) to see the killing floor, where executions are mopped up by a ghostly cleaning woman.
But what really drives the story are the changes in the main male characters. Vladimir evolves from a jackbooted, sarcastic figure of terror to a man of grandiose (if still sarcastic) vision, a megalomaniac writ small, until his police state begins to eat its own. Stalin, though ever the cruel dictator, reveals more and more background and personality through Ross DeGraw’s marvelous performance, making the leader’s charisma scarily understandable. We join in his twinkly, larger-than-life jollity in spite of ourselves.
Most extremely, Bulgakov, the stalwart dissident, gradually and with painful reluctance takes on the characteristics of a despot, showing how tyranny can so easily snowball into a foregone conclusion.
Aside from a somewhat foggy ending, both the play and the production sustain their grip throughout. The relatively low-tech facilities of the Grand Hall at St. Mary’s Church, in Manhattan’s deep Lower East Side, don’t deter the fine creative and technical team, who give us a wondrous period set that effectively evokes the hardships of Soviet shared-apartment life, with accurate-looking costumes, evocative lighting, and incidental music that cleverly mixes the American big-band swing of the era with ominously martial Soviet anthems.
Collaborators runs through Feb. 13 at Grand Hall, 440 Grand Street at St. Mary’s Church, NYC. For tickets call 212-868-4144 or visit SmartTix.