Those wanting a casebook example of how farce sometimes freezes on the tongue owe themselves a visit to the National Theater, now hosting the only production of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Mandate” likely to be seen for quite some time. In part, the pall that sets in is scarcely the playwright’s fault: no writer can be blamed for being overtaken by history, as this 1925 text certainly was by the scourge of Stalinism. But the less generous reaction is to separate out hindsight from what we take to be hilarious, in which case “The Mandate” just simply isn’t very funny.
The play’s Moscow debut post-Revolution was itself the stuff of history, arriving in a Meyerhold staging at least as celebrated for its stylistic extremes as for the script. But as adapted by British director Declan Donnellan in his own English-language version, Erdman’s all-but-forgotten landmark can’t shake off a grin-and-bear-it feel, as if Donnellan were trying desperately to whip up a head of steam on a theatrical confection inherently lacking in froth.
Erdman is best known for a subsequent play, “The Suicide,” which was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Co. in 1979 and later brought Derek Jacobi to Broadway for a short-lived run. “The Mandate” is messier if, on this evidence, barely less manic; it features the sort of sizable cast tearing around the Cottesloe auditorium of which most American venues can only dream.
Is the payoff worth it? That depends on your penchant for theatrical curiosities, which Donnellan — who has worked frequently in Russia — is in this case uniquely well-poised to seize upon. It’s just possible that young children may get the biggest charge, since one of the running gags involves a character — Adrian Scarborough’s hapless Ivan Ivanovich — scurrying about with a pot of noodles on his head.
Ivanovich is the puffed-up informer of a piece about roleplay, in which a family of ex-grocers must quickly find a proletarian connection in order to get their dull daughter married off to the son of a businessman for whom membership in the Party counts as a kind of dowry.
At that point, cue the transformation of the would-be bride’s brother, Pavel (Martin Huston), into a rabid Communist with a mandate to prove it (hence the title), not to mention a mother, Nadejda (Deborah Findlay), whose scattiness isn’t entirely what it seems.
Then again, that’s true of much of a mistake-filled environment in which the family cook, the evocatively named Nastia (Sinead Matthews, in the best comic turn of the night), emerges from a trunk in royal garb, leading to false assumptions that she is the Grand Duchess Anastasia newly possessed of a giddiness that is far-from-grand.
Hardly anyone knows the Cottesloe better than Donnellan, who on this same stage directed the defining 1993 revival of “Sweeney Todd” as well as both parts of “Angels in America.” And there’s no doubt that he maneuvers a large company around Nick Ormerod’s attractive set like some master puppeteer. That the characters have little independent life seems a function of their existence simultaneously as farcical pawns and — in Donnellan’s interpretation — semi-grotesques, who would make some of Gogol’s more outsized creations seem positively ordinary by comparison.
Among the cast, Bruce Alexander seizes every moment as the businessman who speaks a bowdlerized French (“plus slowly, s’il vous plait” is about the gist of it), and, playing his son, Laurence Penry-Jones gets one of those physical bits of business that make auds both laugh and wince.
But for all its emphasis on disguise, there’s little disguising the emergence of “The Mandate” as a cautionary tale about a people doomed to be wiped out that has arrived as a comedy that pretty much wears you out.