WELLFLEET — Pity the poor drama critic: damned as namby-pamby if he/she routinely plays nice, despised by theater practitioners — but beloved of controversy-courting publications — if gifted in the art of the putdown.
In “The Kritik,” that’s the dilemma facing Volya Mikhailevich Vedininski (Jonathan Fielding), a fledgling reviewer in the fictional one-paper town of Abliveta, circa 1890. He sits at a barstool, stupefied — Fielding is a master of the deer-in-headlights stare — by the task set before him: whether to be kind or cutting. The challenge, we soon learn, is somewhat complicated by the fact that the auteuse in question, Alexandra Alexandrovna a.k.a. “Lexi” (a swanning Stacy Fischer), is his ex-wife, after whom he still pines. “A Draft in the Bedroom” is but the latest entry in a series of abysmal-sounding gambits. (Past highlights include the enticingly titled “tragic operetta ‘Woe to the Seedlings.’ ”)
Harbor Stage cofounder Brenda Withers, of “Matt & Ben” acclaim, has clearly been brushing up on her Chekhov (colleague Robert Kropf has written a couple of brilliant adaptations for the company since its founding in 2012). Her wholly imagined “faux-period piece” — per the press release — is not so much a straight-on parody as a sly, appreciative homage.
Surely Lexi — who sweeps grandly into the bar with her coterie — has an antecedent in Irina Arkadina, the egotistical diva who carelessly foments such distress in “The Seagull.” This particular tin-pot thespian enjoys the fawning of two adoring acolytes.
Stas (hulking Robin Bloodworth, playing earnest and dim) is a former nobody whom Lexi prizes for being “big-hearted” (“So big . . . have I already said hearted?” she purrs, draping herself over her find for the benefit of her still-besotted ex-spouse). Stas, inspired, segues into a Nina-esque paean to the thrills of the acting profession. “Is tonight not the very first night you have ever stepped onto a stage?” counters Lili, a pragmatic barmaid played with crack comic timing by company newcomer Holly Erin McCarthy.
Lexi’s other camp follower is the space-case ingenue Tatiana (Molly Kimmerling), so traumatized by her debut review in Moscow that she has taken refuge in this backwater, boastfully described by Chief Minister Chairwoman Shrand (adorably officious Amie Lytle) as “the fifth-most admired city in the sixth-most popular county in the Eastern half of the Rural and Subrural Provinces of Russia.”
Shrand, a rabid town-booster (Withers has perhaps had some dealings with local tourism boards), is initially aghast at the prospect of a negative review. However, she and the Abliveta Tribuna Express’s self-important senior editor (David Nelson) rapidly change their tune once they perceive the potential for a flame war.
One character has remained markedly silent. That’s Pasha Popov (Alex Pollock, who played Konstantin to Withers’s Arkadina in “The Seagull” three summers ago). Having delivered several huge sacks of groats (along with a Whole Foods-worthy précis of their culinary potential), Pasha slumps in a corner, face obscured by what looks like a wolf-pelt cloche. He bestirs himself only to dismiss — as “sadsack nonsense” — a bathetic excerpt performed by Stas. Verdict delivered, Pasha then holds forth on what he would like to see in a play: “A mysterious stranger or two. No one crying, no one talking about death. . .” And inspired by his own creative outburst, he’s curious. “What do you get for being a playwright?”
For Alexandra Alexandrovna, well-deserved ridicule; for Brenda Withers, kudos once again. Oh, and that pistol mounted prominently on the barroom wall? There it will rebelliously remain.
Play by Brenda Withers. Directed by Withers. Presented by Harbor Stage Company. At Harbor Stage, Wellfleet, through Aug. 6. Tickets: $23, 508-349-6800, www.harborstage.org
Sandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.