Take three generations of a cheerfully squabbling family, put them into a spy drama, fill with lust, love and lies, whip everything along as a comedy and what have you got? “Donkey Heart.” Put like that, Moses Raine’s big-hearted play sounds over-packed with ideas, but his emphasis on strong character writing and the sheer finesse of the beautifully acted production directed by his sister, playwright Nina Raine (author of the much-produced U.K. and U.S. hit “Tribes”), make the result consistently as surprising as it is highly entertaining.
Anyone writing about an extended family stuck living on top of each other, especially when the family in question is Russian, is going to awaken echoes of tragic-comic Chekhov. And this rumbustious gathering of fits, fights, feuds and egos certainly has one foot in the past. But instead of a pre-Revolutionary lament, Raine’s fictional family is busy in present-day Moscow with everyone trying to work out how to live in a world previously defined by, but now rid of, Communism.
The most Chekhovian character, and the one tied most to the past, is Alexander, the grandfather (a forlorn and tender Patrick Godfrey) who has seen and lost too much. Around him, in scenes alive with activity, are lines of communication both well-drawn and often comically crossed. On the quiet, his civil servant son Ivan (a neatly bullish Paul Wyett) is up to no good while attempting to ignore the manifold demands everyone makes of him.
Eager for Ivan’s attention or approval are his long-suffering wife (a quietly piercing Wendy Nottingham, whose worn down physicality speaks volumes), his permanently scratchy adolescent son Petya (an amusingly feckless James Musgrave) plus on-off, preening girlfriend Clara (Georgia Henshaw), not to mention Ivan’s temporarily homeless personal assistant (an impressively implacable Emily Bruni) who adds to the chaos by coming to stay. Ivan’s sharp-witted daughter Sasha (Lisa Diveney), meanwhile, who can’t decide what she should be feeling, succeeds in adding to everyone’s level of exasperation by the way she refuses to take responsibility for the lovestruck young English student Thomas (nicely gauche Alex Large) she invited to stay with them.
The latter two characters introduce shades of Irish playwright Brian Friel, particularly his play “Translations,” in which characters attempt to communicate while speaking languages not understood by other characters. Raine uses a similar device by having Lisa, the only English speaker, using heavily accented English whenever she speaks with Thomas while everyone else looks on in bafflement until she translates back in perfect English. Initially played for comedy, this device gradually reveals itself as a metaphor. The (mis)understandings between people and, most specifically, the act of listening — something the state used to do and which this supremely talkative family is very bad at — is at the heart of the play.
It’s particularly impressive that 29-year-old Raine writes such snappy scenes in which multiple characters remain fully animated – many more experienced writers flounder with more than two people or three people in a scene. His real strength, however, is his ability to mesh strong characters into taut plotlines that rise to satisfying climaxes. Furthermore, the plotting smartly underlines ideas of individual responsibilities, personal responses to political history and a touching and troubling sense of the past returning to haunt the present.
Helmer Nina Raine and lighting designer Peter Mumford expertly control the mood and flow in James Turner’s lived-in, cluttered but never clumsy set. Already a good fit in this tiny theater, the energy and warmth of this unexpected winner deserve far wider attention and exposure.