The Studio Theater’s season of mostly Russian plays is serving an explosive dose of “Black Milk,” an inventive and disturbing look at the underside of the new capitalist Russia by Vassily Sigarev, a 27-year-old Russian playwright quickly making a name for himself. The exceedingly dark comedy is receiving a first-rate production here, superbly acted by a cast headed by Holly Twyford and Matthew Montelongo.
Sigarev holds a caustic view of the chaotic and lawless brand of capitalism that has enveloped post-Communist Russia, and he’s not afraid to express it. He does so with biting humor and acerbic, profanity-laced dialogue peppered with Moscow street slang. His message is pointed and his characters succinctly defined in this play, which received two simultaneous productions in Moscow in 2002, and a 2003 staging at London’s Royal Court.
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“Milk” follows Sigarev’s earlier work, “Plasticine,” another hard-edged piece that won prizes in Russia and was also produced by Royal Court. Studio is using Sasha Dugdale’s translation for the London production but has Americanized the script.
Michael Phillippi’s effective setting is a dreary railroad station in an isolated rural village, where trains pass through but seldom stop. The place “smells of armpits,” and the two rows of grimy seats in the center should be avoided without a newspaper covering. On the floor in the corner sleeps an old drunk, one of the esteemed customers of the station’s ticket clerk who in her spare time makes cheap vodka for the locals. She’s just trying to get by.
Enter Twyford and Montelongo as Shura and Lyovchik, a couple who represent the new economy’s class of cold-hearted opportunists. They are urban profiteers selling cheap toasters at inflated prices to the gullible masses, whom they regard with raw contempt. The locals don’t know how to use them, and only eat rolls.
Twyford’s character has major attitude and a penchant for hurling high-decibel invective at anyone who sets her off, especially her husband. Advanced in pregnancy, the chain smoker lumbers around the waiting room in great discomfort — and to great comic effect, notably in a hysterical scene when she’s seized with labor pains. Montelongo plays a despicable thug drawn as a metaphor for the new Russia. He is a ruthless, greedy and contemptuous con artist totally focused on the almighty Ruble.
Playing off each other beautifully, the talented actors are two smug sophisticates whose disdain for the ignorance that surrounds them is belied by equally profound knowledge gaps of their own. They are clueless about fundamental health issues regarding childbirth, for example.
This impossibly bleak scenario is embellished with a variety of perspectives from a candid ticket agent (Anne Stone), a gun-toting lunatic (Tobin Atkinson), a lecturing drunk (Bob Barr), an irate customer (June Hansen) and other denizens. Dialogue is lively and the action is tense under Serge Seiden’s perceptive direction.
Act two sees a major change in the proceedings. A slender Shura enters the station with a baby carriage and a transformed view of life. She sees God in her child’s birth, has gained sensitivity and respect, and wants to settle down in the village.
But all is not well. The ticket agent has been arrested for poisoning her customers with the latest batch of moonshine. And Lyovchik remains as belligerent as before. “You are a slut out of the gutter,” he rails at Shura in the searing final scene. The playwright’s message is as clear as it is grim: The birth of a new Russia won’t change the lives of its suffering and vulnerable citizenry.