Volume 76, Number 25 | November 8 - 14, 2006


Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Jason O’Connell, Dan Matisa and Laura Piquado in Michael Frayn’s and Anton Chekhov’s “The Sneeze,” now at Ace of Clubs.

Noises on, with Anton Chekov

By Jerry Tallmer

Every writer has one, and Anton Chekhov had one too. He called her Murashkina and put her in a short story in which she beseeches an audience with the eminent writer Pavel Vasilyevich, keeps coming back until she doggedly obtains it, pushes her way into his presence, jabbers away with compliments on his achievements — “Every book! Every play! Such a talent! Such a pleasure!” — and then shoehorns in her actual purpose: to get the great writer to take just one little glance, one little peep, at a poor little (huge, long, chaotic) play of her own.

“Yes, well, why don’t you just put it in the post and… ,” says Pvel Vaselyevich.

Famous last words. Bulldog Murashkina sinks in her teeth, plumps down to start reading it aloud, and never lets go.

Speaking of words, the word post gives away the fact that the translator of this short story of Chekhov’s is probably British. And sure enough, he is. His name is Michael Frayn, and he himself is a fairly eminent writer and playwright whose achievement has included such prizewinning serious work on serious matters as “Copenhagen” and “Democracy” but also such riotous backstage-and-forestage comedy as “Noises Off.”

Mr. Frayn has also spent a considerable portion of his life translating Chekhov into English. Including the four short stories and four short plays of which the above, called “Drama,” is one. The eight pieces taken together form a bill called “The Sneeze,” which was done at Newcastle-upon-Tyne and in London in 1988 and is now being done here as “The Sneeze: Chekhov in a Pub,” in a Phoenix Ensemble production at the Ace of Clubs, 9 Great Jones Street, through November 14.

“Let me make it clear, half of these things were written by Chekhov as stories, half as plays,” Michael Frayn, who at 73 has now outlived Chekhov by almost 30 years, said over the blower from London the other afternoon. “In the case of the plays, all I did was translate and shorten them a bit.

“I had previously translated all four of his last plays as well as his first play — sometimes called ‘Platinov’ but actually a play without a name, to which we gave the name ‘Wild Honey’ when it was done here, with great success, and then on Broadway. When it was done in Russia it was six hours long.”

Most people don’t think of Chekhov as a comic writer.

“Well, people don’t, but they should,” Frayn said with a certain asperity. “He began as a comic writer of short stories and then got serious. In the theater it was the other way round — he started with serious plays, had no success, then started to write short comedies like ‘The Bear’ and ‘The Proposal,’ and then turned serious” — with the four great last plays, “Uncle Vanya,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Three Sisters,” “The Sea Gull.”

“He began as a comic writer and ended as a comic writer,” said the man whose own arc runs from “Noises Off” to “Copenhagen,” which has to do with the atom bomb, and “Democracy,” which has to do with political infighting in the West Germany of Willy Brandt.

“ ‘Noises Off’ has no relationship whatsoever to Chekhov,” said Michael Frayn with, again, some pepper in his voice.

How do you come to know Russian, sir?

“I first began reading Chekhov in Russian when learning Russian during my military service as a young man, 1952-54 [Frayn was born September 8, 1933, in London] This was shortly after the Russians had started the Berlin blockade, and it looked like another war was coming. Everybody realized that we needed translators. We were given ‘The Cherry Orchard’ to translate, and it was a terrible struggle.”

He’s been to Russia “quite a lot,” he said, “but not since the changes” — i.e., the fall of communism. “In the old days I went first of all as a student at Cambridge.  I used to be fluent in Russian as an interpreter, but my spoken Russian is very poor.”

Perhaps the most deeply funny of the eight pieces of “Chekhov in a Pub” is “The Bear,” in which a man and a woman who are quite ready to kill one another over a disputed piece of property end up, after much sneering and shouting and scalding put-downs, in a passionate and  prolonged kiss.

The title play, “The Sneeze,” adapted from a Chekhov short story, is about a very minor government official whose whole life is drastically altered, to say the least, when — sitting in the row behind his boss — he sneezes in a crowded theater. How do you say Gezundheit in Russian? 

Over the phone from London, Michael Frayn had one last random thought.

“When we did ‘Wild Honey’ on Broadway” — Virginia Theatre, 36 performances, 1986-87 — “the producers said: ‘Can we take Chekhov’s name off of it? His name is poison on Broadway.’ ”

But surely not at the Ace of Clubs, underneath the ACME Restaurant, 9 Great Jones Street, at Lafayette.

Ah choo!
THE SNEEZE. Four short stories and four short plays by Anton Chekhov, put into English by Michael Frayn. Directed by John Giampetro. Running time: 90 minutes. A Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production through November 14 at Ace of Clubs, 9 Great Jones Street, (212) 352-3101.

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