One of the high points of last year was the sight and sound of Bianca Amato swanning across the stage of the Huntington Theatre Company as the elegant, carefree, self-confident, and lethally witty Amanda in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,’’ tossing off bon mots like little hand grenades.
In Guillermo Calderón’s “Neva,’’ Amato cuts a considerably different figure. She portrays Olga Knipper, the actress and widow of Anton Chekhov, attired in black and steeped in angst.
The year is relatively young, but it’s safe to say that “Neva’’ will not be a theatrical high point.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Amato and her two costars valiantly try but ultimately fail to breathe life into this dreary, overwrought, and overwritten drama. “Neva,’’ which draws its name from a river in St. Petersburg, eventually sinks beneath its own weightiness.
For all the weaknesses of the Public Theater production, directed by Calderón and presented by ArtsEmerson on a tiny stage at the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, it is once again impossible to take your eyes off Amato. She delivers a performance that is utterly convincing in its life-or-death urgency. But little else in “Neva’’ is nearly as persuasive.
It’s too bad, because the play’s premise has promise. As Olga prepares for a production of her late husband’s “The Cherry Orchard’’ at a St. Petersburg theater in 1905, she is buffeted by waves of grief, guilt, and self-doubt, fearing the verdict of audiences on not just her performance but also her character. “They’ll say that I was a bad wife,’’ Olga predicts mournfully. “That I let my husband spit up his lungs in his house in Yalta, while I was off playing the women that he wrote.’’
Only two other actors have shown up for rehearsal: Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Aleko (Luke Robertson). Instead of working on “The Cherry Orchard,’’ Olga coaxes them into reenacting scenes from her time with Chekhov, focusing especially on his death, possibly in an attempt to work through her anguish.
Meanwhile, on the streets, death is occurring on a mass scale: Czar Nicholas II’s soldiers have massacred civilians taking part in a peaceful march whose goal was to deliver a petition to the czar. (The slaughter, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,’’ helped lay the groundwork for the Russian Revolution 12 years later). The question hangs in the air: Have the othercast members not shown up because they were killed?
But despite the drama onstage and off, “Neva’’ remains stubbornly uninvolving. Calderón seems allergic to subtlety. As the trio exhaustively thrashes out matters of politics, love, and social justice, the histrionics are pitched at a relentlessly high level.
The question of theater’s place in a time of social upheaval is a potentially fertile topic that Calderón raises in “Neva.’’ But he handles it clumsily, with Bernstine’s Masha suddenly, out of left field, delivering a protracted, bitter diatribe against “bourgeois theater’’ (“How can you stand up on stage knowing that out on the streets, in the world, people are dying?’’ she demands to know.) Even as an augury of the revolutionary ruthlessness to come, the scene feels arbitrarily shoehorned into the play, though Bernstine performs it with rapid-fire virtuosity.
“Neva’’ works best in those rare moments when the playwright demonstrates a lighter touch, as when the actors engage in the time-honored practice of backstage gossip, dishing the dirt about the company’s director, who has impregnated a ticket-taker. Amato and Robertson are especially good in a scene in which Aleko pretends to be in love with Olga, and she, upon learning of his deception, pretends to be devastated.
It’s a skillful demonstration of the power of performance when it comes to blurring the line between reality and fantasy. But more often the ponderous “Neva’’ illustrates the limitations of good acting.