At one point during “Man in a Case,’’ now at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, one of the most famous dancers in the world flatly refuses an invitation to join a line dance.
That would be Mikhail Baryshnikov, portraying a joyless teacher named Belikov in the first of two segments of this multimedia theater piece, adapted from a pair of stories by Anton Chekhov, “The Man in a Case’’ and “About Love.’’
Taken together, the segments of “Man in a Case’’ add up to a kind of elegy for lives unlived and a commentary on the manifold challenges of romance. It is a somber and visually striking 75 minutes, marred by some arid and stiff patches; the second segment is less developed and thus less involving than the first.
Baryshnikov plays Belikov in a deliberately low-key, minimalist fashion, with scant traces of the star’s magnetism. (He showed a sense of humor on opening night, though, ad-libbing part of a line by remarking that it was “so freaking cold, like today in Boston.’’)
Adapter-directors Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson make extensive use of video (the design is by Jeff Larson), including black-and-white film, throughout “Man in a Case.’’ It was an astute move on their part to incorporate the concepts of paranoia and surveillance into the piece. Belikov’s stark apartment, designed by Peter Ksander, features no fewer than five television monitors; his door contains seven locks, a veritable ladder of anxiety. While Chekhov could not have imagined the technological ingenuity of the modern surveillance state, the great Russian writer certainly knew a thing or two about the pressure to conform and the impulse to control. And that is what Baryshnikov’s sepulchral Belikov is all about, at bottom; he reserves his deepest affection for words like “forbidden’’ and “prohibited.’’
While a hapless and even pitiable figure in some respects, Belikov nonetheless wields power over coworkers and townspeople by the sheer, spirit-suffocating strength of his aura of gloomy disapproval. The guy is a walking buzzkill, a passive-aggressive authoritarian. When Baryshnikov’s Belikov glares, the others stiffen. At dinner, no one will sit until Belikov does. When he urges the expulsion of two students, the other teachers’ hands rise in a gesture of assent as though manipulated by a puppeteer.
Implausibly, romance comes Belikov’s way in the form of a lively Ukrainian woman named Barbara, played by Timberly Canale, who swirls into his orbit wearing a red dress that could not contrast more starkly with the long, dark coat Belikov keeps tightly wrapped around him. His choice: Overcome his inhibitions and marry her, or continue on his emotionally constipated way?
A climactic moment involving a slow-motion tumble down a staircase is ingeniously staged by Lazar and Parson, as is a nighttime scene where all Belikov’s fears are given vividly hallucinatory form within his enclosed bedchamber. A couple of the updates to Chekhov’s story fall flat, though, especially an inane literary quarrel between Barbara and her brother.
The second segment features Baryshnikov as a landowner in love with a married woman, played by Canale. There is a grave beauty to their scenes together, especially during the description of the one moment during their years of longing when they gave in to their passion, but the story feels truncated, so the emotional impact is blunted.
It should be noted that Baryshnikov does eventually get around to a bit of dancing in “Man in a Case.’’ And when he does, he provides graceful, effortless proof that he still has it.