Chekhov Without Headphones; Buena Suerte, Mr. Shepard

A word about headphones and the Moscow Art Theater. My point is that the terrible system of simultaneous translation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is making us all deaf to great drama.

The dated headphones themselves should be put on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art as charming technological relics. They are notoriously tinny and uncomfortable-providing us with the waxy, disoriented feeling of poor souls watching a movie on a plane. The Moscow Art Theater’s The Three Sisters was the fabled company’s third visit to the United States in its 100-year history. The Brooklyn Academy’s equally fabled headphones didn’t spoil it for me. Nothing could. But they tried.

As is customary, the translator’s voice was a peculiar nagging drone. It can’t be helped. Acting isn’t the game with translators, but neutrality is. The translator therefore plays all the parts as if attending a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. The sleepy sound of droning in your ears for three hours isn’t what Chekhov had in mind. Along with others, I turned the dread headphones off to at least savor the real thing. At other times, I’d keep one ear plugged into the drone and the other ear open for the Russian, a heady compromise. But what to do?

Get rid of them! Oleg Yefremov’s new Three Sisters was staged in the Brooklyn Academy’s Opera House. Supertitles-and first-rate translations-are the answer. They could update the clumsy headphones, but that would still leave us with the drone. Supertitles are commonplace for operas. Why not for foreign plays? You can glance at them or not, they’re silent, they don’t hurt your ears, they free the stage, and, above all, we get to hear all the vital inflections and emotional resonance of the language. We hear emotion. I think the sooner the Brooklyn Academy of Music junks the headphones, the better.

But I can’t let the protest pass without the pleasure of paying at least brief tribute to the Moscow Art Theater-the home, one reminds oneself with a sense of awe, of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Anton Chekhov. It was also to Moscow, of course, that Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio went spiritually (and misinterpreted Stanislavsky’s “Method”). After a century of interpreting Chekhov, there was a danger of a mummified Three Sisters , but the new production was audacious and achingly sad in its final act of death and despair.

A few liberties were taken with the text (proving Chekhov isn’t sacred even to Russians). There were lapses (the business of the crippled musician in the final act). And some found the production, with more scenes played outdoors than is customary, too remote (though the vast stage of the Opera House can never be intimate). Yet I found it, ultimately, the most moving production of The Three Sisters I’ve seen, headphones or no.

The playing was against stereotype, the wonderful sense of ensemble-of actors who’ve lived and breathed these roles together all their lives-supreme. The sets, by Valery Leventhal, were beautiful, particularly the semicircular curtain of birch trees painted like lace that finally enveloped the three sisters like a shroud. That last, unexpected image, when the provincial Prozorov home faded into history to leave the sisters bereft in the surrounding forest, is one we will always remember. It made sense of everything-becoming a frantic dance of despair as the three broken sisters whom life had passed by spun off into the cosmos and clung to each other. They were doomed to unhappiness before our own saddened eyes.

Gringo and Mizlansky

What does an artistic director do when a famous dramatist delivers a dud?

The art of producing, it’s said, is knowing when to say No. (Anyone can say Yes.) But it’s a ticklish problem. The dramatist may never write for you again. Or he might be going through a rough patch, needing encouragement rather than honeyed rejection. Did Tennessee Williams ever have a play rejected after he became Tennessee Williams? Has Arthur Miller ever been told, “I’m sorry, Arthur. This one doesn’t cut it”? Or Sam Shepard?

I’m sure that Lynne Meadow, the distinguished artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club, has the highest regard for Sam Shepard’s Eyes for Consuela . But why?

This is such a slack little play from the author of True West, Fool for Love and Buried Child that one wonders what’s got into him. Based on a short story by Octavio Paz (the Mexican Nobel laureate), Eyes for Consuela is about a neurotic lost American named Henry (David Strathairn) who flees his failing marriage to find himself in a boardinghouse in the heart of the tropical jungles of Mexico. There, the savvy locals say stuff such as: “You don’t know what’s out there, my friend”; ” Buena suerte, mi amigo “; and “My heart was bleeding for my homeland. But most of all for Consuela.”

The old owner of the boarding house, Viejo, has one eye. In the opening moments, Henry shudders awake in sweat. “Must be a woman,” says Viejo. It is a woman!

A bandit named Amado appears. When Henry tells Viejo that Amado is a bandit, he says: “What man isn’t?” Viejo may have one eye, but he’s seen it all.

Amado wants to rob the gringo, Henry, of his eyes. As I see it, eyes are very important in Mr. Shepard’s Eyes for Consuela . People have eyes but do not see. People are blind to the truth, blind even to heavy-handed Sam Shepard metaphors. Anyway, Amado wants to cut out the gringo’s eyes and present them to his beautiful young wife, the misterioso Consuela. Eyes, Amado explains poetically, make her smile “a smile rising like the morning sun in my heart.” Meanwhile, Consuela drifts through the action from time to time, ethereal as a ghost. This is because she’s dead. But let’s not go into it now. The bandido Amado shot her through the heart. “Anything is possible with a woman!” He also shot her father, blithe Viejo, through the eye. Hence his one eye.

The important thing, concerning the eye issue, is that Consuela will only be content with a gift of blue eyes, whereas Henry’s are brown. He keeps telling the bandido they’re brown. But it makes no difference. The bandido is colorblind. Nevertheless, poor old Henry has blue eyes on his passport photo, which might, or might not, be a trick of the light. What do you make of that, mi amigos ?

Mucho philosophical talk takes place over tequila between the bandido and the gringo in a battle of wills and cultures. “So, Mr. Henry, you thought you could escape. You thought Mexico could hide you from yourself …” The bandido is really a wise man and savior- comprende ? “In America, everything is easy … until one day you discover yourself swimming alone in a big black sea.” To which Henry actually responds, “It’s possible, maybe I’ve made a mistake coming down here.”

Well, this isn’t good, is it? “Without sacrifice there is no love!” “I will be blind forever!” “You are blind now! In this world! You do not see!” Mr. Shepard has written a pseudomysterious play, obviously. His message, such as it is, is a gigantic cliché about Latin poetic soulfulness versus neurotic earthbound America. But Eyes for Consuela itself is dispiritingly earthbound, and Mr. Shepard’s notion of magic realism is merely neurotic.

“Trouble follows trouble,” as the bandido says. I’m sorry to report that Jon Robin Baitz’s Hollywood comedy of amorality at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage 1, Mizlansky-Zilinsky , or Shmucks , promises to sparkle but misfires. Mr. Baitz has reworked his first produced play-a one-act comedy from 1984 never seen in New York-but his nostalgia for the fringe Hollywood figures and scam artists he adored in his quite recent youth doesn’t make a full and satisfying evening.

The dramatist’s cultivated talent isn’t particularly comic. His intelligence and ethical outrage reside in genuinely moral debates ( The Substance of Fire, Three Hotels ). Neil Simon zingers aren’t his forte, though Mizlansky-Zilinsky could easily be a Neil Simon vehicle. The higher lunacy of, say, Mel Brooks’ The Producers is absent. Mr. Baitz’s Los Angeles in-jokes are by no means the equal of Robert Altman’s The Player . Then again, the venality of Hollywood lowlife is pretty well raked over territory in theater-from David Mamet’s Speed the Plow to John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs and a Bone .

Nathan Lane plays Nathan Lane (who is Mizlansky). He’s meant to be a lovable rogue, I guess. My problem is that I didn’t see the least thing that was lovable about him. Perhaps we are getting too accustomed to Mr. Lane’s shtick. His exasperated loudness dominates virtually every scene of Joe Mantello’s lengthy production. Santo Loquasto’s cool poolside designs are too chic for the deadbeat, messy Mizlansky; Ann Roth’s costumes aren’t 1980’s, but Boogie Nights 1970’s. Mizlansky-Zilinsky , or Shmucks , however much it promises, falls apart in the second act-though some, let me add, have found it a treat.

Chekhov Without Headphones; Buena Suerte, Mr. Shepard