This is a wordy comedy on a subject exhaustively redone in movies and TV: the ups and downs of the itinerant gambler. Indeed, the plot clearly resembles that of The Sting: some professional gamblers use the tricks of their trade to outwit one of their own kind.
The protagonist, Ikharev (Michael Nathanson),* comes to town and seeks to con the resident gamblers, who are in turn waiting for a mark. After he demonstrates his ability with a marked deck that he bribes a servant to put in play, they inveigle him to join their ring and defraud a merchant's son who has been entrusted with collecting on a bank draft. He cleans out the kid; they then con him into giving them his capital in exchange for the bank draft, which has a face value of two-and-half times his cash.
It should come as no surprise to a modern audience that the bank draft, the kid, and the rich merchant are all fake, though Ikharev is taken in, so the last quarter of the play is anticlimactic. Much of the rest was enjoyable, especially where the director let Gogol's text alone (though it could have used a modern facelift): anyone who has lost more money at the tables than he could afford would have identified with the alternate bravado and horror of the "kid" (Shane Barnes).
Unfortunately, the director did not leave the text alone, following what seems to be an Eastern European convention of injecting mindless business into every other line, where several characters will act out in dumbshow what another is trying to explain in expository narration. Mistrusting the text like this bogs down the play rather than speeding it up.
Other excesses included a window covered with gel. When Ikharev reminisced about his lady love, Adelaida (whom he esteemed enough to name a deck of cards after), lights would illuminate her (Nezhana Chernova) beckoning beyond the window.
Speaking of lighting, the space had very few, and underpowered, instruments. Levels changed between different acting areas with lurching dynamics, and the operator shone a tiny spotlight on the face of whoever was speaking. A fundamental purpose of directing is to establish the focus of a scene and direct the audience's eyes to it; but, as they say, less is more. (Most of the card games were unrealistic: no one demanded to cut or reshuffle the deck; dealers constantly flashed the bottom card; and, because the actors were so close to the audience and the decks weren't stacked - except in one instance - the cards called weren't the same as those that appeared on the table.)
The actors generally did well in this hostile environment. In particular, Nathanson's Ikharev glittered with the arrogance of a talented artist; D. L. Shroder as his servant, Gavrushka, amused as he carried much of the expository burden; and Barnes as Young Glov came back from his humiliation to reveal a nasty, intimidating streak. His father, Flavio Romeo, wasn't nearly old enough, though he maintained his dignity. Mike Jankowitz, as the corrupt bank manager, was appropriately chilling; and Matt Walker, Kurt Elftmann, and Harry Peerce, as the three chief crooks, were appropriately seedy and greedy. (Walker invested his pettiness with pomposity; Walker showed the hunger of a ferret invading a chicken coop, though he was a bit hoarse.) Vitali Baganov lent solid support as a servant.
*Note: The program didn't list the characters in order of appearance and the dialog offered few clues as to the identities of the characters.
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Copyright 2000 John Chatterton