The dream of having a writer’s words come to life onstage becomes a comic nightmare in Keith Reddin’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Black Snow.” But the Yale Rep production of this absurdist tale of Soviet bureaucracy, the publishing world and Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater fails to find the right tone, style and sense of ensemble to make the work more than an occasional theatrical in-joke or an overly familiar satire on Soviet life.
With its brisk pace and an inventive lead comic perf by Adam Stein as the writer whose novel gets disastrously turned into a stage work, there’s plenty of madness in this spoof of the Method — but not much more.
Yale School of Drama grad Reddin adapted his play — which won the Joseph Jefferson Award when it preemed in 1993 at Chi’s Goodman Theater — from Bulgakov’s unfinished autobiographical novel of the 1930s. It was based on the Russian author’s experience a decade earlier of having a work turned into a stage piece — and ruined — by the Moscow Arts Theater under the fabled theatrical guru famous for his long rehearsal process.
Failed writer Sergei Maxudov (Stein) is about to end his life when a knock on the door brings a deus ex machina figure at the play’s beginning. The bold and mysterious Rudolfi (Brian Hutchison) announces he wants to publish Maxudov’s novel. But the wild and surreal experience of launching the novel — titled “Black Snow” — is nothing compared to when theatrical impresario Ivan Vasilievich (Alvin Epstein) decides to turn the work into a play. Here the continually unraveling Maxudov finds the theatrical world just as autocratic and crazed as the societal one.
But this sense of a world run amok under the weight of ego, censorship and governmental power just doesn’t translate effectively into a satisfying comic experience.
It’s not for want of trying. Under Yale Rep helmer Evan Yionoulis, the production strains mightily, with few laughs as it ranges in style from Theater of the Ridiculous to Kafka-meets-Alice in Wonderland to “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Still, there are some bright spots — Vasilievich’s sycophantic followers laughing and applauding at absurd lengths at the master’s every utterance; the appearance of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Moliere to mock Maxudov’s talent; and a terrific sight gag of a desperate actor (Matthew Boston) going to great lengths to please his director.
The esteemed Epstein plays the pontificating Vasilievich, but oddly, his perf here is less assured than his triumph earlier this year in Boston and at La Mama as King Lear.
The production also marks Epstein’s return to Yale; nearly 30 years ago, he was associate director (following a.d. Robert Brustein from Yale to Harvard for a long career at American Repertory Theater). To make things more confusing/ironic/curious, Epstein played the theatrical guru in yet another adaptation of the Bulgakov novel — this time by Keith Dewhurst — in 1992 at ART.
But intriguing dramaturgical footnotes do not make up for a lacking production.