The 32-year-old 13th Street Repertory Company held a national playwriting contest and picked San Francisco-based Peter Levy as the winner for his depiction of the last days of Leo Tolstoy: Troika: God, Tolstoy & Sophia. Unfortunately the winning play lost as both a play and a production.
Levy tells the story of Tolstoy (Mike Durell) as he struggles with his true religious beliefs, the finalization of his important relationships with his wife Sophia (Catherine Hennessey) and daughter Sasha (Kristin Ledingham) and the writing of his will. His choice, as championed by his publisher (Seth D. Rabinowitz) and doctor (Matt Hartwick), is to leave all royalties to his wife up through certain writings, including War and Peace. Royalties for all other writings will be left in the control of daughter Sasha, with the understanding that she will oversee the royalty-free publication of those writings so that they will be affordable for the people of Russia. The wife is not happy with this arrangement and feels that she is being cheated out of her inheritance. To exasperate matters, Sophia reads in Tolstoy’s diary that he is homosexual. Her life is falling apart around her, and she attempts suicide. Meanwhile, Tolstoy’s new personal secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (Mark Comer) is falling in love with the daughter. In a secondary plot line, Sasha’s reluctance to get married based on the observation of her parents’ turbulent marriage perplexes the traditionally minded Valentin, who would prefer marriage to their commitment-free affair.
The story is told in numerous short scenes that end suddenly with blackouts and never feel complete. Characters come and go in scenes haphazardly with little motivation, constantly overhearing news that causes confrontations. The love affair between Sasha and Valentin is utterly unbelievable, and there is nothing in the writing of Sasha that leads one to believe it was possible for Valentin to fall in love with her. Director Karen Raphaeli didn’t help the play by guiding her cast toward a level of sincerity that would make the impossible relationships believable, nor did she work for smooth transitions between scenes or the building of the natural tug of war between the characters.
The costumes, by Tom Harlan, attempted to evoke the 1910 period, but only made it halfway with incongruous clothing items mixed together for a shabby overall design. A cheap novelty store beard made Tolstoy himself look ridiculous -- an unfortunate attribute for a protagonist. The set, by Casey McLain, served the play on basic terms, but in keeping with the other production elements it too lacked unification with the overall production. Lighting, also by McLain, was basic, based on the limitations of the facility, but was evenly executed.
Save for a very sensitive performance by Matt Hartwick and the sincere and likable performance of Mark Comer, the acting of the ensemble was lackluster. Durell was a curmudgeon cartoon cousin of Mr. Magoo, Hennessey was overwrought, and the two robbed the central relationship of the electric chemistry that had to be necessary to make the entire enterprise fly. Levy had a good idea for a play, but a fuzzy focus and poor character development in combination with a careless production made this drama a historical disappointment.
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