After a year and a half's hiatus, Walnut Creek's Playhouse West takes up where it left off with Chekhov's The Brute and Other Farces, which would have been its next show when it cancelled its season to return to its revamped original home.
These four early comedies are trifles compared to Chekhov's later dramas such as Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters, but they're also terribly droll in a melancholy, singularly Russian way. They're hampered by uneven performances and slack comic pacing in artistic director Lois Grandi's staging, but half of them remain amusing regardless.
The first and last plays are similar drawing-room comedies, made more similar by the casting: Both have George McRae as an excitable visitor trying to have a conversation with a dotty Sarah Eismann. In The Marriage Proposal, Ivan has come to propose to the daughter of his neighbor (a crafty Stu Klitsner) but instead becomes sidetracked in an escalating argument over a small piece of land. It's funny stuff even when some of the delivery is stilted. The Brute has a desperate creditor come to collect from an obsessively mourning debtor's widow. McRae is stronger as the nervous, mousy suitor in Proposal than as the loutish titular Brute, and Eismann's blank stare is more effective as clueless daughter than ethereal widow, where her over-the-top, spooky-eyed stiffness bogs down the pace.
Jan Zimmerman's two 19th-century sets are dissimilar enough to suggest a slight difference in class, and Krista Nelson's costumes are nicely period-appropriate, muttonchops and all.
A drunken old actor's lament late at night in an empty theater, Swan Song depends on a tour de force performance to avoid being tedious, as it is here. Robert Parnell comes reeling in with all the exaggerated drunkenness of the drunken porter in Macbeth, and bitches and moans his hour upon the stage. The entrance of an adoring prompter (Morgan Mackay) gives the actor a chance to recite some of Shakespeare's greatest hits. Parnell's stentorian tones lend these snippets ample resonance, but it's a fine line between playing a ham and just hamming it up, and both of his feet are planted on the porky side of that line.
As a lecturer digressing endlessly about his dominating wife and wasted life, Mackay lets the monologue The Harmfulness of Tobacco be funny without making a big song and dance of it. A little more of that kind of restraint could only improve the rest of it.