Rediscovered Chekhov play superbly blends wit and wisdom

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Russian playwright and doctor Anton Chekhov once wrote to his brother, a literary translator: ``Either don't translate rubbish, or do, and polish it up as you go along. You can even cut and expand. The authors won't be offended, and you will acquire a reputation as a good translator.'' Internationally acclaimed British playwright Michael Frayn (``Noises Off'') has clearly taken the master's advice to heart. The result is ``Wild Honey,'' a brilliant ``new'' Chekhov play which surely would have delighted the good doctor.

At present, it's a play in repertoire at London's prestigious National Theater. It was recently garlanded with nine top drama prizes, including Best Actor and Best Director, at the annual Lawrence Olivier Awards ceremony (Britain's equivalent to the Tony Awards).

The play, in its original form, has always been surrounded by mystery. First discovered in a Moscow bank vault 16 years after Chekhov's death in 1904, the manuscript lacked a title page. Also missing was any hint of when it had been created, although experts now agree that it must be Chekhov's earliest extant play, written circa age 21. What was found were many rough ideas for changes along with a note promising more to come.

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In its discovered state, the play, later titled ``Platonov,'' is a woolly, disjointed piece that, Mr. Frayn estimates, would take some six hours to perform -- small wonder that it's generally been regarded as unstageable.

Even so, there have been several earnest attempts, most notably in this country. Indeed, few foreign playwrights capture British admiration more than Chekhov: With his intimate understanding of a decaying landed elite, decorous but empty lives and unrequited longings, both his humor and pathos strike a particularly familiar chord in this part of the world. But no previous attempt has even come close to the Frayn's success.

Freely adapted by Frayn's sure hand, and reduced in performing length to just under three hours, Chekhov's rambling creation now has a tightly woven plot made of four dramatic strands: comedy, farce, melodrama, and chilling tragedy. Platonov, the dissolute village schoolmaster, is the wildly witty center of it all. A clever, handsome, high-spirited man, he has, nonetheless, spent a lifetime squandering his gifts. And he knows it. From this self-knowledge springs both the play's joy and its sadness.

When the story opens, we meet the usual array of pampered, insular Chekhovian characters who don't quite know what to do with themselves. They have gathered after a long winter's hibernation at the summer estate of charismatic Anna Petrovna, a widow of declining fortunes (``I'm already starting to pine for the cold again,'' sighs a bored Platonov); and so for the first half of the play their most pressing preoccupations are the impending lunch and the evening's fireworks.

Only Platonov disrupts the status quo. He speaks uncomfortable truths. Yet his sardonic japes pointed at the people around him have a double edge: He realizes that he is no better -- worse, in fact, because he clearly perceives the human wasteland he lives in, but hasn't the will, nor the courage, to find his way out.

Urbane comedy glides into gentle farce when Platonov's old flame, Sofya, enters the gathering. Soon she, along with every other woman in the play, is in passionate pursuit of Platonov. But his heart patently isn't into Don Juaning. Intuitively he knows that it only mirrors back what is at the root of his tortured existence: ``It's not a stronghold you are attacking, but a weakhold,'' Platonov tells an indignant pursuer. He kisses every woman in sight, to be sure. But when it comes to anything more entangling, he invariably slopes off to his plain, earnest, silently suffering wife.

Until she can endure no more. Finally she leaves Platonov, and with her takes the one shred of decency in his life. Left alone with himself, Platonov's tragicomic demise is not far behind. Nor is the play's moral message. Platonov died as he lived: stumbling half unthinkingly, half fully aware, to his own self-destruction.

The amazing achievement of ``Wild Honey'' is its superb blend of wit and wisdom, pleasure and pain. Deft quips come thick and fast, yet just when we are prepared to laugh the loudest, Platonov will pierce the mirth with a numbing cri de coeur. ``Why don't we lead the life that we have in us to lead?'' he queries aloud to Sofya when she wonders why he hasn't done more with himself. He has no answer. To ask the question is enough.

Such swift gear-changes in tone take an enormous talent to succeed. Ian McKellen as Platonov has risen superbly to the challenge. One of the hottest properties in British theater today, Mr. McKellen brings an energy and intelligence to the part that is thrilling to watch.

Equal credit must also go to director Christopher Morahan. Just back at the National after a long break to make British TV's recent dramatic triumph, ``Jewel in the Crown,'' Mr. Morahan has managed to coax every ounce of subtlety and nuance out of both actors and text. Set designer John Gunter and lighting director Robert Bryan, in keeping with the current trend in British theater for elaborate visual effect, have lent a memorable richness to the production. .

As for ``Wild Honey'' itself -- a masterpiece? Time will be the final arbiter.

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