There's a rumor abroad in TheaterLand that Anton Chekhov wrote comedies. Those of you who've had the misfortune to sit through his excruciating Three Sisters could be excused your chortling. But Pitt Rep offers up, as proof of Chekhov's yuk-master credentials, three one-act comedies, "The Bear," "The Proposal" and "The Wedding."
Written in Anton's flaming youth, the plays are really short skits about a bombastic boor wooing a widow ("The Bear"); a fluttery worry-wart proposing to a headstrong country maiden ("The Proposal"); and their wedding reception ("The Wedding").
Meant as boisterous crowd-pleasers, these scenes are anything but subtle. To tell the truth, they're really not all that funny, either. Or, rather, the humor is of a decidedly low-brow variety, replete with stock characters and clichéd plots, and utterly unencumbered by substance (not surprising, since they were written to be performed in the Russian equivalent of a music hall). To each his own, but Chekhov would have felt at home in the writer's room of Gilligan's Island.
The only problem with the Pitt production is that director and cast are far too smart for the material. With all the B.A.s, M.A.s, M.F.A.s and Ph.D.s running around, nobody really gets as down and dirty as Anton intended, or indulges in the shamelessly shticky acting required to makes these jokes work. If, indeed, they are to work.
On the other hand, what we do get isn't chopped liver. Julie Ray's designed a gorgeous setting, and Don Mangone's costume couldn't be more handsome: This a lovely evening of theater. And I'm especially happy to report that, thanks to W. Stephen Coleman's solid direction, this is one of the most uniformly strong casts I've seen on a Pitt stage in a while. Elena Alexandratos and Doug Mertz, as widow and boor, come closest to Chekhov's brand of comedy, and play together with the precision and chemistry of the seasoned pros they are. Parag S. Gohel and Jennifer Murray, as the young love interests, manage to be goofy and endearing at the same time, and a host of other students fill out Chekhov's wacky supporting characters with tons of grace and style.
While these plays are never gonna erase, say, Oscar Wilde from the scene, each of them at least has the benefit of not being Three Sisters.
The Bear, The Proposal & The Wedding continues through Sun., April 1. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-624-PLAY.