In the online edition of today’s Wall Street Journal, I review the off-Broadway premiere of Jonathan Leaf’s Pushkin: A Life Played Out. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
George Balanchine called Tchaikovsky “Pushkin in music: supreme craftsmanship, exact proportions, majesty.” That says a lot about Tchaikovsky, and even more about Aleksandr Pushkin. But though he was and is Russia’s greatest poet, Pushkin’s work is comparatively little known in the West save in the form of Tchaikovsky’s “Yevgeny Onegin” and Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” Outside of those operas, whose libretti were adapted by their composers from his two best-remembered works, he has never made much of an impression outside his native land. As a result, few Westerners know anything about Pushkin’s spectacularly eventful life and violent death—he was a compulsive gambler who was killed in a duel in 1837—both of which were as theatrical as his poetry.
That’s where Jonathan Leaf comes in. Mr. Leaf is the author of, among other things, “The Germans in Paris,” a smart, elegantly wrought 2007 comedy of manners about an imagined but plausible encounter between Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Richard Wagner. While he has a Stoppard-like knack for spinning thought-provoking drama out of such speculative scenarios, “Pushkin: A Life Played Out,” a history play in verse about the circumstances leading up to Pushkin’s murder, is not a witty game of what-if. It is, rather, a romantic tragedy, the true story of an idealist who refuses to compromise with the lethal realities of power and so finds himself staring down the wrong end of a gun barrel. Tautly told and staged with hurtling momentum by Christopher McElroen, “Pushkin” is one of the best new plays to open in New York in recent memory, and this fabulously well-acted production, performed in an 80-seat black-box theater, puts you a heartbeat away from the action….
“Pushkin” doesn’t look or feel like a small-scale show, much less a low-budget downtown production. Troy Hourie, the scenic designer, has created a simply decorated set that nonetheless suggests the resplendent air of Czarist Russia, and Elivia Bovenzi’s period costumes perfect the illusion: You know at all times where you are and when it is. Nor can I possibly say enough good things about Mr. McElroen’s staging, which builds to the climactic duel so inexorably that you’ll resent the intermission….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.