Credit: C. Stanley Photography

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The actor Christopher Geary does not look like Vladimir Putin. That’s not a disqualifying strike against his nervy, mannered performance as the man who’s ruled Russia since the time before iPods in Kleptocracy, Arena Stage’s absorbing world premiere drama about the Russian president’s rivalry with oligarch-turned-philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But it is a bit puzzling that the show’s cast includes a much closer Putin lookalike in actor Joseph Carlson, who appears as Putin’s translator, among other roles. Carlson was a very good Andrew Jackson in a not-very-good show at Arena called Sovereignty at this time last year, so he has experience playing heads of state who are also cruel sons of bitches.

Though Putin’s consolidation of authoritarian rule in a period when democracy appeared, at least briefly, to be flowering has made him the world’s No. 1 strongman, the KGB agent-turned-politician could only have risen so high and remained in power for so long—19 years, though he says he will step down when his fourth presidential term expires in 2024—by being consistently underestimated. 

Geary, slight of build and nasal of voice, begs us to repeat the mistake of Khodorkovsky and many others and to judge him insufficiently sturdy to play so cunning a foe of Western liberal democracy. “Your time will come,” he sneers to a George W. Bush administration official late in the play, which throws up only a few temporal signposts during its narrative, spanning roughly from 1992 to 2013. “Your president will be my dog.” On the day I wrote  this, the Trump Administration officially lifted the sanctions on three companies in which friend-of-Putin Oleg Deripaska owns large interests, over the objections of the 362 members of the House of Representatives, including 136 Republicans. 

Kleptocracy is more successful as a geopolitical yarn than as a character study, though maybe that fits for a story at least in part about a scheming puppetmaster. Playwright Kenneth Lin has billed it as “a fictional play based on historic events.” While the motives of some of its principals—particularly Khodorkovsky, despite Max Woertendyke’s appealing performance as the would-be reformer, who today lives in Switzerland—remain as opaque as the oil that buoyed their fortunes, Lin’s reverse engineering of recent geopolitical history feels no more implausible than many developments on House of Cards. (Lin was a writer and producer on the Netflix series.) 

Formally, this one is an odd duck. It’s Geary’s Putin who addresses us directly throughout the show, starting with a racy line from surrealist Russian poet Daniil Kharms: “They say all the best tarts are fat-arsed.” But the title of that bit of literature, How a Man Crumbled, could also be applied to this play, which along with its diabolical narrator has a more traditional protagonist in Khodorkovsky, who took advantage of the opportunities of Glasnost in the early-to-mid-1990s to become, for a time, the richest man in Russia. 

As the play opens, Khodorkovsky is living in his BMW while offering cash for the “privatization vouchers” that gave the Russians at least a theoretical opportunity to buy shares in what used to be state-owned companies. He’s also begging a 19-year-old blonde beauty named Inna, played by Brontë England-Nelson, to become his second wife. Though Woertendyke plays Khodorkovsky as a bent-knee lover, Inna understands him well enough to know the choice he’s made is a calculated one. “I need you to bring the sheep to me,” he tells her. 

With a few partners, he seizes control of Yukos Oil and is implicated in the assassination of a regional politician who claims Yukos owes a vast sum in back taxes. He wants to make bank and Westernize the motherland by selling out to an American conglomerate, even if it means starving his own employees to keep Yukos so profitable that the Americans can’t stay away. Rebuffing Putin’s entreaties and subsequent threats to slow down, he finds himself jailed on tax evasion charges—and runs for office from his cell. As he revisits correspondence from old rivals, Lin puts one of them, Elliott Bales’ murdered local official, back on the stage, with prosthetic entry and exit wounds affixed to his head. Prison guards who once abused him now bring tea and luxuries to try to win his favor.

Not all of it is as deft as that. A George W. Bush administration official played by Candy Buckley, who seems to have modeled her performance on the 43rd President’s hip-shooting Texan persona, is more a caricature than a character. This nameless functionary’s job is to grease the wheels of Western expansion into Russia by getting Khodorkovsky to stop jeopardizing the sale of his company by calling for reforms and backing Putin’s political opponents. She’s working Putin, too, to try to get him to stop inserting himself into what the U.S. would like to claim is a transaction between private entities. 

Misha Kachman’s black, brutalist set uses just a few design elements to suggest the forces of capitalism swiftly remaking Russia: the back half of Khodorkovsky’s imported car; an illuminated oil company logo. Nicholas Hussong’s projections of ripples of oil swimming over the set’s flat surfaces, together with Broken Chord’s murky score and ambient sound design, give the evening an atmosphere of frightening inevitability. By the time Putin unscrews a lightbulb before sitting at his desk to tut-tut that he had to stop Khodorkovsky because Russia just isn’t “ready for all that light,” I was inclined to forgive it its excesses. One lesson of this mess we’re in is that subtlety is overrated.

To Feb. 24 at1101 6th St. SW. $41–$95. (202) 488-3300.