Weird beards

A Family Affair rolls with laughter at the expense of a vile Russian family

Russian writers get a bad rap.
Far from being suicide and samovar-obsessed weird-beards, they are actually rather jolly fellows.

Examples? you ask.
Well, take Dostoevsky and that funny scene in Crime and Punishment where Razumikhin cracks the old lady's skull open with an axe and "the blood gushed as from an overturned glass." Or how about Tolstoy and that zany passage in Anna Karenina where Anna gets crushed by a train and her mangled body is laid out in the railway station "still warm with human life."

Fyodor, Leo, stop it already--you're killin' me!
All right. So Russian authors may be a big glum. Still, as our scientist friends say, it only takes one white crow to prove that all crows aren't black.

Judging by A Family Affair, playwright Alexander Ostrovsky is that crow.
This comedy, a hidden gem for most Western audiences, but popular in Russia for about 150 years, is dazzlingly funny and done to absolute perfection by the Dallas Theater Center. Benefiting from a coarse, corrosive and contemporized new translation by British writer Nick Dear, it has you wondering, "Who is this Ostrovsky bird, and why didn't I hear about him in finishing school?"

The story concerns a mid-19th century Russian merchant family more dysfunctional than the Bundys. The bear-like papa, Bolshov, sees an opportunity for making one last killing through a familiar-sounding bankruptcy scheme that might have been inspired by a story in the business section of today's newspaper. He also wants to get his daughter, Lipochka, a "non-earning investment," married off.

To accomplish these transactions, he needs the help of two go-betweens: Ustinya the match-maker and Rispolozhensky, a lawyer. Meanwhile, Lazar, Bolshov's assistant, is trying to sneak his way into his master's fortunes and into Lipochka's pants.

Literally every character in the play is an unregenerate sharp, backbiter, and cynic who'll switch allegiances at the drop of a kopeck. Self-interest is the sole motivating principle of these people, who wouldn't recognize virtue if it bit them on the butt.

Drawing on an arcane, classical reference, the play reminded me of that episode from the original "Star Trek" where an alternate Captain Kirk and several of his officers from a barbaric parallel universe get zapped into the "good" Enterprise, while the civilized Kirk materializes in the "bad" Enterprise. When civilized Kirk finally makes it back to the good Enterprise, he asks Spock how it felt being cooped up with a bunch of grasping, amoral barbarians. "I found it quite...refreshing," Spock replies.

It is curiously refreshing to watch a cast of acid-tongued characters pursuing their self-interests like racing whippets after a pacing rabbit, with only the most cursory nod to conventional morality. It's even more refreshing when the dialogue they fling at each other is worthy of Moliere. For anyone involved in the hound-eat-hound world of business, or for those busy in any other human endeavor, there's a definite jolt of self-recognition here.

It's also a lot of fun to see what crack actors and an on-top-of-his game director like Stan Wojewodski, Jr. can do given this kind of classic material. Guest director Wojewodski, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, brings out every bit of venom in this poisonous piece. He has his actors going through their paces with the polished precision and exuberant innovation of the old Pat Riley Lakers. You have to watch carefully or risk missing a rapid-fire set of comedic nuances.

Without exception, the players are all first-rate. Karen Lee Pickett is terrific as the snotty, junk-food nurtured teenage daughter fixated on fashion and social climbing. In her ridiculous low-cut green and red gown, even her skin looks spoiled. Dallas acting stalwart Bruce DuBose turns in another textured, intelligent, boy-is-that-guy-funny performance as the bootlicking, vodka-swilling attorney. Charis Leos is perfect as the catty Ustinya, her Dallas socialite cackle dripping with contempt for anything declasse. Beverly May as the family retainer Fominishna does more with one barnyard-chicken turn of the head than most actresses do with a page of dialogue.

Brendan Corbalis executes a neat transformation from back-counter schemer to nouveau-riche son of a bitch, and Kenneth Gray and Sheriden Thomas are pitiless as the parents who auction their daughter like a cow.

Also outstanding is the sumptuous set design by Neil Patel, which includes a give-that-man-a-hand scene switch in the final act. Katherine Roth's gorgeous period costumes add a colorful flourish to a production that is just right down to the last detail.

A Family Affair could hold its own against any comedy you'll see anywhere, and there's nary a suicide nor samovar in sight.

A Family Affair runs through April 16 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. For information, call 522-

 
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