How often do you get to see a new play by an established master, a play that's all the more unusual because he wrote just four great plays before he died young? It's like finding a new novel by Jane Austen.
Inevitably this new play will offer the pleasures of discovery, as with any play, but heightened by what we already know of the playwright. When it's Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), the medical doctor and professional writer with a deeply ironic view of life, the play turns out to be both familiar and startlingly new.
This is pretty much the case with "Ivanov" by the very great Russian playwright with the limited canon who is the subject of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's current two-month-long Chekhov Celebration. "Ivanov" is one of four major offerings, and it's made English by Tom Stoppard.
Actually Chekhov, who started as a short-story writer, lived long enough to write a dozen or more plays, mainly short, but he's known for "The Seagull," "Uncle Vanya," "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard" (1896-1904). "Ivanov" is his first surviving full-length play in his attempt to find his true mode, and it dates from way back in 1887.
So of course we first approach it backward, looking back from the achievement of the big four. Inevitably "Ivanov" is often condescended to as apprentice work in which Chekhov is still writing in the stagy mode of his day, the mode the theater gods had appointed him to reform with his later masterpieces.
But also inevitably, there recently have been those eager to acclaim "Ivanov" as a neglected masterpiece.
The truth, of course, lies in between. It's a very good play that lacks the miraculous transparency of the big four, in which character and motive seem immediately accessible, taking the place of plot. Famously, not much happens in Chekhov, nothing but the whole world of human frustration and longing.
"Ivanov" doesn't achieve that ultimate clarity. But it is moving toward it. It also serves up great dollops of comedy and of the conventional drama that Chekhov was to supplant, which is fun, too. What we're left with is, first, Ivanov himself, a partially realized character who has what the Shakespeare-worshipping era called the Hamlet disease, which is to say he just can't make up his mind what to do or whether to do anything at all. He's mightily depressed, and it isn't clear just why.
My own experience, watching this play I had never seen or read, was to spend Act 1 (of four short acts, served up with just one intermission) intensely irritated with this man who couldn't get off his duff and do anything at all, let alone tell his poor ill wife that he either does or does not love her.
But just as I was about to stop caring about him at all, even as embodied in the generally sympathetic person of David Whalen, we whisk off in Act 2 to the nearby estate of the Lebedevs, where everyone is mainly interested in gossip, backbiting or their own affairs -- business or otherwise. In contrast, Ivanov seems nearly a Hamlet of a different kind -- charming and smart. But then his wife and her frantic doctor arrive, and there's a painful showdown, all the more painful because there's a young woman in the wings, and Ivanov still won't take his own life in his hands.
After the intermission, Act 3 begins with a wonderful scene that could be a comic short story or playlet of its own, as Pavel, the only appealing Lebedev (made even more so by the robust, earnest energy of Martin Giles), hosts several other hungover gents for dedicated drinking and passionate descriptions of the allure of favorite foods.
But the debate about what is to be done with Ivanov continues. He's mainly bewildered by his own thoughts and feelings, but compared to the empty, privileged life all around him, even his bewilderment looks like philosophy. Somehow he seduces us into thinking he knows some deep secret about life, but he just can't spit it out.
Then in Act 4 there's about to be a wedding, the standard ending to any comedy, no matter how acerbic or self-indulgent, and we're whipsawed again: Ivanov finally makes up his mind to do something, and you might say Chekhov takes a step toward the maturity of the plays to come.
Well, I had a good time. Aiding and abetting that were Messrs. Whalen and Giles, of course, but also Alan Stanford as a preening Count, Leo Marks as the self-congratulatory young doctor, Matt DeCaro as Ivanov's bearish estate manager, Nike Doukas as the rejected wife and Katya Stepanova (there's a Russian!) as the young wife-in-waiting, plus that many actors more. When Helena Ruoti plays a small supporting role, you know this acting company is first-class.
So is the fluid scene design by Gianni Downs, with sound and lighting that measure up. It's hard to evaluate the direction by Andrew Paul, because, not knowing the play, I don't know if there are dimensions he has missed. What we see certainly makes entertaining sense, however much we're frustrated by the lead character.
Talk about Hamlet-like! Those late-19th-century Russians are the ones who own the patent on selfish dithering. It's enough to make you sign up with those revolutionaries waiting in the wings.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: email@example.com.