Whether you love the works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov or hate them, you can’t help but enjoy The Chekhov Dreams, a dark and witty world-premiere rom-com by John McKinney. Presented at Theatre Row by Off-Axis Productions in association with Off The Leash Productions, the story examines the psychology of love, life, loss, and dreams, in a clever contemporary mash-up of Chekhov’s The Seagull and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, with a wealth of references to other masterpieces of literature and the theater, method acting, and mystic realism thrown into the incisively amusing mix.
Leslie Kincaid Burby (who was recognized in the 2016 FringeNYC for Overall Excellence for Direction for Zamboni) directs with mordant humor, underlying sensitivity, and engaging blocking, as a fine cast of five parodies the laughably problematic personalities and troubled psyches of the updated figures inspired by characters from the 19th-century classics. She fluidly navigates through the script’s surprising shifts in mood, from fantasy to reality, risible behavior to demoralizing pain, in a final showdown between good and evil, and the ultimate life-or-death Chekhovian decision between giving in to self-destructive dissipation and despair, or moving on to a happier future.
The outstanding Dana Watkins stars as the melancholic and romantic protagonist Jeremy, grieving the death of his long-time girlfriend Kate and haunted by his dreams and apparitions of her three years later. Intelligent, competitive, jealous, and manipulative, Kate, portrayed by Elizabeth Inghram with an appropriately controlling and seductive chill that recalls the titular Snow Queen from Jeremy’s favorite childhood story, continues to entice him to stay with her throughout eternity, as he remains forlorn in his apartment, forsakes his social life, and leaves the fairytale novella he’s been writing unfinished.
After his excessively hedonistic brother Eddie – a “superficial asshole” played with over-the-top self-indulgent gusto by Christian Ryan – convinces him to get out into the world for at least a few hours a week, Jeremy enrolls in an acting class, where he is assigned the much younger and much more enthusiastic Chrissy as his scene partner. As they get together to rehearse a passage from The Seagull (his scathing analysis of the playwright is among the most hilarious scenes of the show), her youthful exuberance for Chekhov and her contagious zeal – winningly captured by the terrific Charlotte Stoiber (her method-acting warm-up technique is another of the play’s comic highlights) – enable him to understand the sardonic wisdom of the play and the hope of life, with a little help from the late playwright himself (whose Russian accent, delight with American slang, and sagacious advice are well-played by Rik Walter).
Other noteworthy scenes include a deftly written and immaculately-timed conversation between Jeremy, Chrissy, and the spirit of Kate, and Jeremy’s side-splitting reactions to a runnning joke about his ”novelette.” A climactic confrontation between Jeremy and Kate provides the traditional dramatic peripeteia, though its overly serious tone and slower pace than the rest of the production could use some editing, for a more concise and impactful moral.
Scott Aronow’s set (despite the occasional errant opening of a drop-front desk) easily transitions from the space of Jeremy’s apartment to the other locales of his story to the images of his dreams, supported by McKinney’s eerie soundscape and evocative lighting by Diana Duecker. Costumes by Christina Giannini, with the assistance of Kimberley Windbiel, both define the current characters and recall their historical prototypes (the sumptuous white garb of the Snow Queen is especially eye-catching).
The Chekhov Dreams provides laughter and insight, so even if you’re not a fan of Chekhov, you, like Jeremy, just might become one after seeing this astute and entertaining send-up.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.