Cheap Malaysian toasters, home-brewed potato vodka, Chupa Chups and menthols, a sawmill, the prospect of rural happiness, even a newborn baby girl—everything’s eventually got a price in Black Milk, a scaldingly funny social satire in which hot-commodity playwright Vassily Sigarev turns a skeptical eye on the New Russia and discovers something that looks pretty familiar to us here in the ol’ New World: a harshly divided nation poisoning itself in headlong pursuit of the profit imperative.
The lights come up on Moscow con artists Lyovchik (kinetic, magnetic Matthew Montelongo) and Shura (brittle-funny Holly Twyford), stuck in a train station waiting, Godot-style, for deliverance from the rural hellhole their latest hustle has landed them in. He’s brash and hunky, a fast-talking huckster with a fauxhawk and a quick temper; she’s a loudmouthed chain-smoker with an electrical-storm hairdo and eight months of prenatal crankiness stored up in her immense belly. They’ve got about as much patience for each other as they do for the “fucking aborigines” they’re so callous about scamming with their scandalously overpriced toasters, and there’s something both hugely entertaining and subtly disquieting about their inspired bickerings: Sigarev has an acute ear for the crackle and stab of urbanite chatter, and anybody who’s been to a Logan Circle cocktail party will know he’s too right about what Shura will describe, after a dramaturgically convenient epiphany, as a culture in which casual, performative bitchiness has unconsciously become an actual outlook.
The play’s real substance, though, emerges from the disconnects it discovers in a half-collapsed, half-reconstructed society that rewards its economic predators even as it longs for a pre-perestroika simplicity—which, of course, may never have existed. There’s something both poignant and frightening about Sigarev’s modern-day Russia, in which opportunities seem to exist only for those prepared to rape them; there’s something comic, something perceptively cynical and savvy, too, in his conflicted portrait of the folks inhabiting Black Milk’s nameless map dot. (Are they guileless yokels? Idiot drunkards? Shrewd peasants, differentiated from Sigarev’s coarse Muscovites by little more than dress and accent? They’re all of the above, and more.) There’s no denying that the play’s sympathies seem to lie with the past and with the peasantry, and it’s no surprise that the evening’s only truly indelible passage is the one that frames the uncomplicated sweetness of the local matron (Elizabeth Stirpe) who helps deliver Shura’s baby. Make no mistake, the play doesn’t argue for a return to some idealized Mother Russian past; it does argue, though, that today’s Mother Russia feeds her children a bitter, toxic milk, indeed.
Serge Seiden’s production leans on the Act 1 laughs to the point that some of Act 2’s drama seems more imposed than organic. Montelongo makes Lyovchik more a clown with a chip on his shoulder than a genuine cur, and Twyford’s amusingly slapsticky Shura never seems quite the hard-bitten hedonist her husband later describes, so her awakening to the cheapness of their life doesn’t feel entirely earned—and more crucially, the brutality of his response seems unconnected to what’s gone before. And if there’s something pathetically touching about Lyovchik’s inarticulate need for the spouse whose “weakness” he appears to despise, the picture of what makes them cling to each other seems somehow incomplete here; why they exit together, in the direction they take, is anybody’s guess.
Still, credit the Studio Theatre with showcasing a talent who’s had Moscow and London talking—and with framing a vivid and vital snapshot of a place at once far away and uncomfortably close to home.
If nothing else, Tea and Sympathy stands out among dubious classics for that perfectly delicious closing line: “Years from now…when you talk about this…and you will…be kind.” Actually, Steven Scott Mazzola’s production for the American Century Theater offers a few other worthwhile assets. There’s a campy, vampy faculty wife, Kathryn Fuller’s ostentatiously voluptuous Lilly, who delights in parading her own considerable assets under the noses of the hormonal teenagers at the exclusive prep school that’s the setting for Robert Anderson’s ’50s melodrama. There’s Matt Soule’s clever set, with its unnervingly clear suggestion of close quarters and prying eyes. There’s a convincingly decent BMOC (Jeff Consoletti), whose kindness only makes the “sensitive” protagonist’s lot all the more tormenting with its taste of what acceptance can be like. And there’s a fine performance from Joe Baker as delicate flower Tom Lee, the tennis-playing, guitar-strumming baby face whose sexuality seems to be on everybody’s minds.
Better still, there’s Mazzola’s awareness that the play is every bit as concerned with the psychosexual dynamic between Tom’s suspiciously hypermasculine housemaster (a suitably pressurized Carl Randolph) and his lonely, liberal-minded wife (Sheri S. Herren), who sees in Tom some of the same neediness and confusion that attracted her to her husband. Could it be he despises his less-than-guylike charge because he’s got a less-than-guylike secret self? You betcha—and Mazzola lets Randolph play the subtext enough that it’s no surprise when Herren finally calls him on it.
It is a tense moment, though, for which you can credit both actors and director, who together build the scene to a nicely chewy emotional confrontation. It’s especially welcome, given Herren’s otherwise dialed-down performance; it may be a calculated effort at the torpor of depression, but it plays mostly as inert.
Tea and Sympathy may still have something to say about sensitivity to difference, as a program note suggests, but it can hardly be said to be modern-minded—it wants to cure or offer condolences to its homos, imagined or latent, and by the time Herren ascends the stairs to Tom’s bedroom to deliver that oft-parodied seduction line, most modern audiences will have lost patience with it. Still, at some level it’s as awkwardly kind as its heroine—and Mazzola & Co. are deft enough to make that seem almost humane. CP