Holding in check his tendency toward unfettered flights of theatrical fantasy , playwright Murphy Guyer has created a slick and commercial contemporary farce about a hapless college professor who becomes embroiled with an eccentric Russian writer, his manipulative wife and a bunch of rich folk from Saratoga Springs. Although Guyer’s shameless gags about domineering and sexually aggressive women and out-of-control vodka-swilling Slavs may run afoul of delicate p.c. sensibilities, “A Russian Romance” has Cleveland subscribers guffawing.
If Guyer can exorcise the dull moments from his overly long second act, he’ll have a very funny and commercially viable show. A writer who has been on the cusp of broad recognition for many years (the Actors Theatre of Louisville premiered Guyer’s “Eden Court” back in the early 1980s), actor-writer Guyer is writing with a more established formula and pulling out every stereotype in the comic lexicon.
The setup here revolves around an identity switch. A divorced and middle-aged Russian literature professor named Brad Bellamy (Brad Bradley) finds himself drinking in a Gotham hotel room with Ivan Ilyitch Vermintsky (Guyer), a noted Russian novelist who has just given a seminar. Ivan’s wife, Svetlana (Nina Landley), wants to persuade her husband to visit a long-lost American cousin in Saratoga Springs so as to secure a visa (Ivan would rather go home and drink). After the Russian lapses into a vodka-induced stupor, his wife persuades the mealy-mouthed professor to impersonate her husband.
The action shifts to the opulent home of the Cavendish family. Kitty (Tandy Cronyn) is a pretentious and stupid society wife, Bunny (David Wasson) is her henpecked and cynical husband, and Katherine (Monica Koskey) is their romantic and troubled daughter. The nasty Kitty’s objective is to keep the man she erroneously thinks is Ivan from discovering that he is entitled to part of the family fortune.
It’s all a rich and complex comic situation that allows the irreverent Guyer to lampoon assorted sacred cows of the literary and cultural establishment — rich dowagers, tenured professors, pathetic publishers and post-Soviet Russian materialists. Most of the best one-liners (in a play that does not treat women especially well) come from Bunny, a man who hates his wife but subsidizes his publishing enterprise from her family fortune.
Guyer himself turns in a typically over-the-top performance as the hapless scribe (who reappears in the second act only to be shot in the back), spluttering and staggering his way through the play. Happily, Peter Hackett’s efficient and well-paced production matches Guyer with other competent farceurs. Cronyn is especially amusing as the malaprop Kitty Cavendish, and Wasson obviously enjoys his role as her sot of a husband. Koskey attacks her character with passion, honesty and weight.
Nicely realized in Cleveland by designer Vicki Smith, the simple two-room setting makes this eight-character comedy an easy and relatively inexpensive play to produce. Perhaps Guyer has finally found a product that will bring him greater recognition, but he’ll need to shave about 20 minutes from the middle. Given the right venue, “A Russian Romance” should be able to find an audience that enjoys watching the slaughtering of a few sacred cultural cows.