Anastasia by Marcelle Maurette; English Adaptation by Guy Bolton. Directed by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Lighting empty lamps..."
There is a mystery to mysteries: why do we find so fascinating the unanswered question? In "Anastasia," the play currently illuminating the NYSTI stage - an early 1950's play about just such a situation, we are confronted by a woman named Anna who lives with the unanswered question, with the mystery of identity. She knows who she is, but not who she was. She believes, sometimes, that she was the youngest daughter of the last Czar of Russia. She knows, at other times, that she is the daughter of a toymaker. She remembers acquiring her injuries in an explosion in a Bucharest factory and she believes the same injuries were acquired in a basement in a house where her family was assassinated by the Bolsheviks. She lives in the confusion of two or more identities. She knows that she must end the confusion somehow.
When she is found by Prince Bounine she is about to do just that by throwing herself into a canal and drowning. He saves her, brings her to his home where he has formed a syndicate to find her, prepare her to become the lost Russian princess, and resolve the question of how to spend the Czar’s millions deposited in western banks. There, in three months time, she manages to convince th gullible and the needy that she is indeed Anastasia. At a crucial juncture, just at the end of Act Two, she manages to convince herself and in a fit of dementia she lapses into Russian, a language she has thus far been unable to speak.
Then there is Act Three.
But this is a mystery play and some things cannot be told. They must be experienced. The company at NYSTI, at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, are giving this play a long overdue workout. There is a chill that pervades this production, a cold, snowy chill that smacks of the Russia people talk about throughout the evening. The cast of fourteen create a vision of the 1920s in Berlin, a vision of the lost Russian court, that is quite striking. John McGuire as Sergei, the butler or major-domo, sets a tone for the piece. John Romeo as the banker Chernov does his best to be the voice of reason. Joel Aroeste as the painter Petrovin nearly steals moments from the rest of the company as he watches and listens with an intensity that speaks volumes.
Poignancy undercuts drama when Phil Sheehan as a sleigh driver and Carole Edie Smith as a charwoman come to see the restored to life Anastasia. Sheehan’s memories, the concepts of a blind man are beautifully expressed while Smith nearly takes our breath away as she tells her tale of scrubbing the floor in the prison where Anastasia has been detained by her soon-to-be killers.
Then there is Eileen Schuyler as the Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandmother. Her first scene, always an emotional one and played so beautifully here by the two women, raises questions that cannot be answered by anything other than the heart and its monumental appeal for acceptance. This is the sequence people will remember and take away from this production. Schuyler is wonderful and, as her probable granddaughter, Mary Jane Hansen has never been better.
Hansen is a "snow princess" in this play. Pale, wan, weak and uncertain in the first act, deliberate and grand in the second act, pale, wan and determined in the third act, her Anna is a living question mark. This actress is convincing nine tenths of the time and then there is that one tenth where the acting shows and you wish she had made a different choice. For example, in the second act when she comes to meet her two peasant visitors the sleigh driver and the charwoman, there is a line of recognition that begins their dialogue. The line works if we see Anna see and recognize the man. Instead, Hansen launches into the line without really looking, without a second’s pause, without anything credible leading to the rapid-fire dialogue of memory. It appears as the over-prepared act of an actress who already knows the lines.
But when she is at her best she really scores a direct hit in this role. Her scene with Schuyler is superb. Her confrontations in the second and third acts with Bounine, played by David Bunce, are always fine. There is a chemistry there that cannot be denied. Bunce is a hard actor to comprehend in this part. There is little of strength and no flash. He looks good, sounds fine, plays the role but never inhabits it. He has his moments, most of them with Hansen’s Anna, but the connective tissue of a part like this is missing somehow.
The same could be said of David Gould’s lackluster performance as Prince Paul. However, the Baroness Livenbaum of Anny DeGange is a living, breathing, flirting noblewoman who seems so much more real than the rest of the Russian crowd around her.
The set by Vaughn Patterson is lovely. Robert Anton’s costumes are just about right for the time and place and people. John McLain has created luscious moods with the lighting design and Will Severin has provided perfectly marvelous incidental music. The production, in fact, is as good as it gets.
Director Snyder has good people onstage and offstage, obviously, but she hasn’t given energy to her characters. She keeps things stagnant much of the time, perhaps letting dialogue have too much of its own say. This seems a conscious choice. When Anna’s former lover, and doctor, played by David Baecker, arrives to confront her, there should have been a new dynamic. Here is a character who simply doesn’t belong in this world fashioned by Bounine. Snyder keeps the tempo of what has come before and shoehorn’s this man into the world created to showcase Anna. He is an interloper only in words, never in actions or mood changes. Here is drama thwarted.
This is such a lovely play, a mystery without an ending, and this is a decent chance to see it live and in person. Enough that is wonderful is happening in this production to warrant a visit to Troy. But one more step up the dramatic ladder would have made it a happening of its own.
John Romeo, David Bunce, Mary Jane Hansen and Joel Aroeste in Anastasia
John McGuire, Joel Aroeste, Phil Sheehan and Carole Edie Smith in Anastasia
Mary Jane Hansen and Eileen Schuyler as Anna and the Dowager Empress
Anastasia plays through May 2 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College, 5 Division Street, in Troy. Ticket prices range from $10 - $20. For schedules and tickets call the NYSTI box office at 518-274-3256 or check out their website at www.nysti.org.