How far is too far to get your art out to the public? What if it meant collaborating with Joseph Stalin?
That is the black comedy at the heart of “Collaborators,” a first play by John Hodge (best-known as the screenwriter for Trainspotting), which received the 2012 Olivier Award for Best New Play when it was produced by the National Theatre in London. It is now making its U.S. premiere in a production by the Storm Theatre.
“Collaborators” is inspired by the life of Mikhail Bulgakov, one of the foremost dissident Russian writers of his day. His day was in the 1920’s and 30’s under Stalin, and his relationship with the Soviet dictator was complicated and surreal. Stalin was a fan of Bulgakov’s work (Stalin reportedly saw Bulgakov’s “The White Guard” 15 times), yet he also banned all of it for being counterrevolutionary. Then, responding to a desperate personal letter from Bulgakov, Stalin lifted his ban and got a job for the writer at the Moscow Art Theater. Bulgakov wrote a play, “A Cabal of Hypocrites,” that told the story of Molière’s oppression and suppression under Louis XIV as a coded way of criticizing the oppression and suppression of artists under Stalin. But then near the end of his life, Bulgakov also inexplicably wrote a positive play about Stalin as a young revolutionary — which despite its laudatory attitude was nevertheless banned from production.
Hodge uses some of the basic facts of this strange relationship and other true biographical details, to imagine a pointed fantasy – that Stalin not only collaborated with Bulgakov in the writing of Bulgakov’s play about Stalin’s younger years, but that Stalin actually wrote the play. “Leave the slave labor to me,” he says jovially in “Collaborators,” but he then asks for something in exchange — that Bulgakov assume Stalin’s duties as head of state. These wind up including the writer’s signing off on executions as part of the notorious Stalinist purges.
There is much promise in this set-up, offering food for thought about such issues as artistic compromise, the relationship of the artist to the state, and the lure of power, as well as the opportunity for some bleak humor: Before Mikhail gets in good with Stalin, for example, he is forced to live in a small unheated apartment with his wife and three unrelated boarders, including a young man named Sergei (Joshua Pyne) who resides in the cupboard.
When Bulgakov (Brian J. Carter) is distrustful of an envoy from Stalin named Vladimir (an effective Robin Haynes), fearful of being hurt or imprisoned, Vladimir says: “Sir, I think you’ve spent too long in the world of show business. Here in the Secret Police, a man’s word is his bond.”
Unfortunately, the Storm Theatre’s production makes it difficult to understand why “Collaborators” went over so big in the U.K. The humor, while evident in theory, is often nearly snuffed out by the sluggish pace and the uneven acting. The play is also awkwardly staged in two different playing areas in a newly christened theater (grandly called Grand Hall) in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, just down the block from Abrons Arts Center. One playing area, the collective apartment, which doubles as the meeting place for the collaborators, is in front of us. The other playing area, where snippets of Bulgakov’s plays are performed, is a neck-strain to the right.
Ross DeGraw is a stand-out as a chummy Stalin who can abruptly turn chilling; Brian J. Carter is fine as Bulgakov. But their scenes together don’t work as well as they should. Director Peter Dobbins doesn’t seem able to navigate the sharp turns in tone, from tickling to terrifying, that the playwright clearly intends.
There is a clue in the program that the director might not understand the work he has undertaken. “It is impossible to research the history of the Soviet Union and not be shocked by the number of Western artists and intellectuals who supported what truly was an ‘Evil Empire,’” a director’s note reads in part. “Tyranny cannot exist without the collaboration of artists and intellectuals who promote its agenda and distort the truth.” Let’s put aside the anachronistic allusion to Ronald Reagan — who used that phrase many decades after both Bulgakov and Stalin were dead and buried – and forget for the moment any irritation about what feels like an irrelevant and simplistic dig at American leftists. Let’s also set aside one’s skepticism about how essential artists are in the maintenance of tyranny. The story of Mikhail Bulgakov is fascinating precisely because its mystifying complexity doesn’t lend itself to easy moralizing, and John Hodge’s absurdist take is surely best presented both bluntly and lightly — or, to use an inexact but appropriate metaphor, using both hammer and sickle.
Click on any photograph by Michael Abrams to see it enlarged
Grand Hall at St. Mary’s Church (440 Grand Street)
Written by John Hodge
Directed by Peter Dobbins
Scenic design by Rebecca Grazi, costume design by Courtney Irizarry, lighting design by Michael Abrams, sound design by Joel Abbott
Cast: Brian J. Carter, Erin Beirnard, Ross DeGraw, Sean Cleary, Maury Miller, Robin Haynes, Jessica Levesque, Natalie Pavelek, Ed Prostak, Joshua R. Pyne, Michael P. Bernosky, Joseph Salvatore Knipper
Collaborators is at Grand Hall through February 13, 2016