Jeffrey Hatcher’s new comedy is the latest entry in a demonstrable trend in American playwriting of the 1990s: mining humor from the economic and social mess that is post-Soviet Russia. From Murphy Guyer to Cecilia Fannon, Yankee scribes have recently been using the former superpower as a moral and cultural background to reveal the Ugly American Abroad in all his or her glory.
Now sitting down at a rental facility in Chicago after a short Midwestern tour, this likable premiere was commissioned and was co-produced by the Phoenix Theater of Indianapolis and the Human Race Theater of Dayton, Ohio.
It’s good to see small but highly competent nonprofits in conservative markets co-operating in order to get behind new work. And while Hatcher’s latest play is a tad derivative and ultimately predictable, the well-crafted “Mother Russia” is also very funny.
Probably best known for “Three Viewings” (Manhattan Theater Club) and the prismatic “Scotland Road” (Primary Stages), Hatcher is one of those prolific, widely produced and diverse writers without a monster hit to take to the bank. “Mother Russia” won’t set any commercial producers on fire (ticket sales to date have not been great in Chicago), but it certainly merits additional viewings at resident theaters interested in snagging a very practical piece that combines a good farcical laugh with a little cultural gravitas.
Hatcher crates a comic scenario in which a bunch of diverse types all separately enlist the aid of Svetlana (Deborah Sargent), a self-described Russian witch, in the furthering of their desires. McTeague (Rich Komenich) is an American businessman hoping to buy a piece of real estate that’s rich with oil. He runs into Duane and Tatty Herkimer (Tony McDonald and Diane Kondrat), an Indiana couple who’ve come to Russia in order to adopt a baby. And then there’s Princess Ospinskya (Barbara Calarese), a Russian looking to reclaim the family estate that was lost during the Bolshevik Revolution.
Hatcher shoves all of these wacky characters into the same cultural and temporal mix, using the opportunity to comment on everything from Midwestern marital dilemmas to the self-serving mores of corporate America. By the end of a fast-moving two hours, all the characters somehow end up at the witch’s estate, where they interact with the same hyperkinetic comings and goings that you would find in a Ray Cooney farce.
There are lots of running sight gags and enough physical interest to keep this savvy and smart farce moving swiftly. Those sensitive to stereotypes may have trouble with Hatcher’s heavy-set, dollar-loving cast of Russians, but the Americans also come in for their share of authorial criticism.
This is a low-budget affair, so the artistic director of the Phoenix also serves as stage manager. But Fonseca has cast an impressive crowd of Midwestern character actors — Steigerwald and Kondrat turn in especially broad but entertaining comic performances — and the action moves at a fast and furious pace. Hatcher deserves credit for combining big laughs with musings on the fall of Communism.