Theater, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
 (Photograph: Chris Tzoubris)
Photograph: Chris TzoubrisDan Smith and Gita Tanner in Ivanov at Piven Theatre Workshop
 (Photograph: Jacob Watson)
Photograph: Jacob WatsonAayisha-Chanel Humphrey and Dan Smith in Ivanov at Piven Theatre Workshop
 (Photograph: Chris Tzoubris)
Photograph: Chris TzoubrisMaya Friedler, Susan Applebaum, Brent Barnes and Kathy Ruhl in Ivanov at Piven Theatre Workshop
 (Photograph: Chris Tzoubris)
Photograph: Chris TzoubrisStephen Fedo and Marc Wilson in Ivanov at Piven Theatre Workshop
 (Photograph: Jacob Watson)
Photograph: Jacob WatsonStephen Fedo, Jay Reed and Bernie Beck in Ivanov at Piven Theatre Workshop
 (Photograph: Jacob Watson)
Photograph: Jacob WatsonSusan O'Brien and Aayisha-Chanel Humphrey in Ivanov at Piven Theatre Workshop

Piven Theatre Workshop. By Anton Chekhov. Directed by Joyce Piven. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 45mins; one intermission.

Theater review by Suzanne Scanlon

Chekhov is the best because people are the worst.

In a recent interview, the bitingly funny local writer Samantha Irby put it this way: “Everyone is stupid and horrible and fucking shit up all the time, and it's a relief when someone is shameless enough to admit it. We are all the goddamned worst."

Chekhov would agree. More than a century later, in our newly ridiculous country of great privilege, we can’t deal. Like the Russians of his time, we lie: to ourselves, to each other. We whine, gossip, cry and beg. We are rotten and hopeless, hypocritical and so goddamn boring. But it’s all so funny!

Ivanov is one of Chekhov’s early plays, though it circles the obsessions of his masterworks. Ivanov (Dan Smith), a 40-something farmer-landowner, is depressed, debt-ridden and seething with self-contempt. He doesn’t love his wife, Anna Petrovina (the stunning Gita Tanner), and can’t hide that fact—even after he learns she is dying.

Anna herself is bored and disillusioned.  She repeats a line: “Flowers return in the spring, but happiness? No.” A Jew, she married Ivanov only to be disowned by her family and othered by his community. More than in his other work, Chekhov lays bare the ugliness of Russian anti-semitism. The play’s climax has Ivanov spewing a hateful slur to Anna. It’s one of the most disturbing moments here, in part because it reveals the depth of Ivanov’s disorder, fueled by a societal one.

Meanwhile, Count Shabyelski (Bernie Beck) is in love with Anna, and unable to bear the loss: “I can’t accept the idea that a living being for no reason at all is going to die.” (Sheldon Patinkin's translation is blunt, plainspoken and moving.)

None of us can, of course. Death is impossible—as are various truths: we love the ones we aren’t meant to love, or the ones who won’t love us in return. We become cliches and hate ourselves for it. We try on various narratives but none fit. We discard these and try again. Or we stop trying.

So why should we care about Ivanov? Well, he’s real. Hamlet is referenced more than once in the play, and no wonder: Ivanov is as angst-ridden as the great Dane; but Chekhov knows that tortured souls are far less charming at 45 than they were at 20. (Like David Foster Wallace in his posthumous, unfinished The Pale King, Chekhov understood that the great, unspoken drama of life was this: how to endure boredom. I lost count, but nearly every character onstage, at some point, declares, “I’m so bored!”)

Yes, Ivanov, played with rare intelligence by Smith, is stupid and horrible—but he knows it. He knows he can’t do anything about it. Even as he becomes involved with the young, beautiful Alexandra Pavlovna (Aayisha-Chanel Humphrey), he can’t lose himself; he knows the affair is just another trite escape plan.

Alas, it turns out that he can do something about it. The play opens with his steward Borkin (the charming Jay Reed) holding a gun to Ivanov in jest; if you’ve learned anything about structure from the Russian master, you won’t be completely surprised to see where things go in Act IV.

Joyce Piven’s direction, too, is masterful—a deconstructed set and a casual approach to performance (some actors are on book, or seem to be) reminding us that these people could very well be ourselves. Every actor here—and there are many—finds the humor, light or hope which is always there to undermine the devastation of our hapless hero.