A Family Affair

By Alexander Ostrovsky
Translated by Nick Dear
Directed by Jim Niesen
Irondale Ensemble Project
Theater for the New City (633-1292)
155 First Avenue (Closes Dec. 16) Non-union production
Reviewed by John Michael Koroly

Why is Ostrovsky not better known in American theatre circles? He should be mentioned in the same breath as Chekhov, Gogol, and Turgenev when discussing Russian dramatists. He was establishing the theatrical vocabulary of the Realist school well before Chekhov, and his anger at the venality of the merchant class resonates to this day with unfiltered passion.

A Family Affair (a more exact translation of its title is ``It's A Family Affair, We'll Settle It Among Ourselves'') is a reworking of his 1850 work, The Bankrupt. It dissects the self-destructive impulses within a petit-bourgeois family but does so with scalding comic approach. To evade his creditors, a merchant transfers his estate to an underling to set up a fraudulent bankruptcy claim. The underling, previously thought a slow-witted, loyal milquetoast, then schemes to keep the fortune and make off with the merchant's daughter. So explosive was the work in its time that it got Ostrovsky sacked from his own civil service position.

Nick Dear's 1988 translation has a good raw feel to its emotions, if too many anachronistic profanities that deaden their own shock value. The laughter it provokes grows increasingly more nervous as the plot advances to its appropriately cynical ending.

The cast was solidly at one with the material, its intensity just stylized enough to make its rhetorical point without ever seeming to lapse into caricature. As the merchant, Terry Greiss found the vital energy inside the man's crude, roughneck hide, making him ruddily three-dimensional to the point that it was actually possible to find sympathy for him when he's stabbed in the back by his clerk. Kathryn Grant as the merchant's wife was vibrantly shrewish but also never lost her hold on the character's humanity. (Although, at times, she seemed to be approximating some manner of Irish brogue.) Georgina Corbo was near-epic in her adolescent airs and off-hand viciousness as the daughter. Steven Satta's unprincipled, mercenary verve as the hireling who double-crosses his boss was rendered with an astute eye and sly comic timing. And, as the alcoholic lawyer who conspires with him, Michael-David Gordon was a tragicomic symphony of self-serving affectations. It's a credit to director Jim Niesen that a sense of humanity was never lost in spite of their ethical failings.

Ken Rothchild's scenery and Hilarie Blumenthal's costumes had a well-observed period (and distinctly Russian) feel to them. And A.C. Hickox's lighting looked good but suffered from a very distracting hum in the wiring.

The Irondale Ensemble Project is a company given to clever time-jump devices, and this production ended with a musical rendition of Paul Simon's ``Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.'' Go see why it makes perfect sense.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1995 John Michael Koroly
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