One of Broadway's more exciting offerings this month is being served way down at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway, an off-off-Broadway house several miles south of the official "Broadway" district. Up three long, ancient wooden flights of stairs in a former sweatshop, a superb drama of international intrigue is playing. And literally speaking, it's on Broadway. So there.
Conversations on Russian Literature has all the elements of the great suspense stories of our age: two characters sitting in a park talking.
This one-act is the second and more substantial half of an evening of plays by David Johnston. Sitting on park benches — not even taking a walk in the woods — an American negotiator (Jonna McElrath) and an old Russian general (Frank Anderson) toss hot potatoes back and forth: their intellectual pursuits (hence the title), their personal histories, their own place in history, their practical and inner motivations for meeting.
By itself, this play is worth more than the price of admission. Skilfully, with music-perfect pacing, and with huge help from two superb performances and Gary Shrader's subtle, unobtrusive direction, the playwright reveals who these players really are and what brings them to this strange crossroads.
The setting is very specific: "The Patriarchs Pond in Moscow, Summer 2004, early evening." The time is important — less than two years after the Moscow theater hostage crisis, a turning point in Russian history, in which the authorities used an "unknown chemical agent" to free hundreds of hostages from Chechen terrorists. But one needs only a dim awareness of recent Russian history to appreciate this tense, funny production, just as one doesn't need to be familiar with the works of Turgenev, Bulgakov, or Chekhov, all of which are referenced as these two unforgettable characters probe for each others' soft spots. While very intellectually and historically aware, this play stands on its own merits.
The evening begins, however, with a playlet for which some knowledge of Russian theater (specifically Chekhov) is needed. But the cheap jokes and spirited performances in Play Russia aren't enough to make it more than very modestly amusing even as an in-joke. As a piece of meta-theater, it's no The Actor's Nightmare. Fortunately, the play is short, and the two works that follow it are better. In the swiftly paced, slightly experimental For Those Of Us Who Have Lived In France, two historical figures and one stereotypical middle-American housewife explain why they wish they could go to France and are sad they can't. David Lapkin's impression of Henry Kissinger is particularly amusing.
Johnston's mastery of the link between humor and pathos becomes seriously clear in Mothra is Waiting. A nightclub sister act has gotten old, to the point where drag queens are parodying it. One sister is ready to grab her last chance for a better life, while the other insists — screechingly — on waiting for the giant moth of the title to come and take her back to the island where the sisters once reigned as princesses. (Familiarity with classic Japanese monster movies is recommended!) It's a finely wrought absurdist miniature that leads us to expect much of the longer play that follows intermission. We are not disappointed. Don't miss this highlight of the winter season down on lower, lower Broadway.
Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays by David Johnston continues through Saturday, March 7, with performances Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM. Performances are at the Access Theater (380 Broadway, just north of White Street). Tickets are $18 ($10 during previews) and are available by calling SmartTix at 212-868-4444, or online.