My 12-Hour Blind Date: The Play Begins
July 14, 2010 | by Elif Batuman
Part two of a four-part review.
11:05 A.M. The play starts. I’m briefly excited. It’s strange to see Dostoevsky’s weird, garrulous narrator—weird, in the book, because he knows all this stuff he couldn’t possibly know, and narrates in first-person plural (“we”) from the perspective of the townspeople—represented by a slight bearded Italian, who appears playing the piano. He explains that the little piece he is playing is called “Franco-Prussian War,” and that he and his friends use it to cover up the sound of their discussion about freethinking. He’s a good actor and not bad at playing the piano.
11:20 A.M. The exposition is taking forever. The poor narrator. He has to introduce so many characters! First he sets up the friendship between Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna (the older characters). Then he has to introduce the circle of freethinkers. There are like eight of them. Then there is the young generation: Stepan Trofimovich’s son, Pyotr, and Varvara Petrovna’s son, Nikolai, and Varvara Petrovna’s ward, Dasha, who is the sister of one of the freethinkers, and then Varvara Petrovna’s friend’s daughter, Liza. Liza and Nikolai and Dasha have been having a love triangle in Switzerland.
11:30 A.M. It’s interesting how important Switzerland is in the novel. You never actually see anything that happens there, but the characters talk about it. That works well in a play.
11:32 A.M. The eight freethinkers are having a reunion at Stepan Trofimovich’s house. They keep greeting each other by name, but it’s impossible to tell them apart, especially since there is a time lag with the supertitles.
11:37 A.M. When will these freethinkers stop reveling? And is the one with glasses Virginsky or Liputin? The narrator is playing an accordion.
11:45 A.M. The one with glasses is Shigalyov. Nikolai comes in. He’s just back from Switzerland. He’s supposed to be this charismatic demonic diabolically handsome character with an empty soul, who ruins everyone’s lives out of his spiritual emptiness. The actor is doing a good job of appearing empty, but that’s it. He looks like a skinny Brad Pitt, complete with the strange beard. I do not find him charismatic.
12:10 A.M. Varvara Petrovna is calling Dasha an idiot. “Crrretina! Crrretina!” she shouts. The seven-year-old girl in the audience is clinging to her mother’s neck and whispering something in her ear, very intently. The LA Times critic sighs and shifts his weight. I wince and try to scoot back in my chair, but collide with the knees of the person behind me (a man wearing shorts), probably causing him acute pain. I feel one with the awesome cycle of life.
12:20 P.M. “Captain Lebyadkin whips his pretty, lame, retarded younger sister,” someone remarks. Now that was an efficient sentence.
12:30 P.M. Stepan Trofimovich doesn’t want to marry Dasha, but the wedding is scheduled for Sunday. “Couldn’t there be a week with no Sunday? Couldn’t God cancel Sunday, just once, to prove to an atheist that he exists?”
I think that was the first funny line. People have been laughing at every other line though. Whenever anyone mentions anything related to theater (like when Varvara Petrovna calls Stepan Trofimovich a “bad actor”), they chuckle knowingly. I find this annoying, even though I know it’s really just a form of politeness.
12:35 P.M. The first fifteen-minute break. I run into Patricia Marx, who writes about shopping for The New Yorker. She is there for fun. I ask if she is having fun. She says she is trying to. Unfortunately there is a fat man sitting in front of her.
“The problem isn’t that he’s fat,” her companion objects, “the problem is that he has no sense of decorum.”
“This is all I’m going to remember,” Patricia observes. “People will ask me what the play was about, and I’ll say it was about the fat man in front of me.” There is a similar line in Anna Karenina when Levin goes to hear some program music to King Lear and gets stuck sitting behind a pillar.
We rush to the bathrooms. We’re still in line when the attendants come out yelling “Five-minute call.” I’m starving and run from the bathroom to buy a banana. The banana has been sitting out in the sun and is pleasantly warm.
1:06 P.M. J. and I are in a mutually reinforcing loop of yawning. We have each yawned three times in the past minute. Why isn’t this exciting? The book is exciting, sort of. All the actors are competent and the script is exactly like the book, but I don’t feel anything.
1:10 P.M. Marya Timofeyevna, the pretty, retarded lame girl runs out like someone out of Fellini, with a huge red flower in her hair, shrieking and laughing hysterically. She’s doing a great job looking like an actor playing a crazy person. Do crazy people ever act like that? I guess by now they do, because they must have seen the same movies I have.
Marya is telling her fortune with cards: “Always the same thing—a trip, an evil man, a deathbed!”
1:20 P.M. The Captain comes out and is trying to beat people with a belt. He is a foot shorter and one hundred pounds heavier than anyone else in the play, and looks like a totally different genre of human being.
1:45 P.M. The Captain recites a poem about a cockroach drowning in a glass full of flies. This is all exactly like the book, but somehow the book feels demented, like a perversion of humanity, whereas this feels like going to a zoo and watching some animals doing their thing, like it’s totally normal for them.
2:05 P.M. Stepan Trofimovich and his son Pyotr are having a fight. Pyotr in the book is this incredibly sinister, sneaky, cynical manipulator, but in the play he comes across like some kind of realistic go-getter. He is way too appealing. He runs around like a puppy, literally clicks his heels. Stepan Trofimovich is annoying and full of bathos, but that’s how he is in the book too. Although in the book he’s funnier.
2:10 P.M. We are herded to a tent for boxed sandwiches. I overhear someone say: “I don’t think David Rakoff is going to make it through another hour.” I realize that I saw a guy who looked like David Rakoff, and he was probably David Rakoff.
One sandwich consists of: “Pole-caught tuna, fennel, black olives, aioli, and lemon on baguette.” We debate the meaning of “Pole-caught tuna.” Maybe, as opposed to Serb-speared boar?
Anne says she saw a better production of Demons in Baltimore. But Amelia loves Italians, so she’s having a good time.
Patricia Marx thinks the little girl in the audience will be traumatized by her experiences today. “I wouldn’t want to meet her fifteen years later.”
3:13 P.M. The little girl and her mother have left. There are three empty seats in the row behind me. A Russian guy in the audience is complaining that he wishes he could watch the World Cup. “They should have a television,” he says. “A very small television.”
Check back tomorrow for part 3: Back on planet Dostoevsky.
Missed the rest of Elif's blind date with Dostoyevsky? Read part 1.