Chekhov’s melancholy antihero Nikolai Ivanov is alive and well and living unhappily ever after in today’s Palm Springs as Nicky, the titular protagonist of Boni B. Alvarez’s rewardingly adventurous reinvention of a late-19th-century Russian classic.

More than any other modernized Chekhov or Chekhov-inspired play of recent years—Species Native To California, Stupid Fucking Bird, Possum Carcass, The Country House, and Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike among them—playwright Alvarez’s World Premiere adaptation sticks close to Ivanov in both plot and style.

Nikolai may now be nicknamed Nicky (Cyrus Wilcox), but he’s every bit as screwed up as his Chekhovian counterpart, married to a dying wife (Sandy Velasco as Filipina immigrant Anna, who like her Russian namesake has given up family and friends for her man), over his head in debt to childhood pal Pavel Lebedev’s (Daniel Kaemon) money-lending wife Zina (Emily Swallow), and pursued by the Lebedevs’ besotted 21-year-old Sasha (Chris Aguila).

This time round, however, Sasha is no fair young maiden but a fair young lad whose sexuality has been embraced by both family (Pavel repeatedly extols the virtues of “my gay son”) and his gay/gay-friendly millennial posse (Jaime Barcelon as Julian, Mark Jacobson as Bryce, and Taylor Hawthorne as Renee), down from San Francisco for their chum’s 21st-birthday weekend.

Not only does this gender tweak give Alvarez’s latest play added contemporary relevance and some zingy one-liners missing from the more dour Russian original, Nicky’s sexual confusion motivates both his depression and his icy coldness toward a terminally ill wife.

Not that Nicky forgets its Eastern-European roots, Alvarez filling his ethnically diverse cast with a mix of first-generation Soviet émigrés and second-generation Russian-Americans. (Uncle Matthew applauds his native land’s return to its old glory under Putin, Pavel maintains there’s nothing vodka can’t cure, and Russian kisses get exchanged throughout.)

It’s fun to see middle-aged Russian matchmaker Aurora (Julia Silverman) not only facilitating matrimony between old-school Uncle Matthew (Ted Barton) and well-to-do widow Martha (Alexis Genya) but being persuaded to begin fixing up impoverished young San Francisco twinks and moneyed old queens living out their dying days under the Palm Springs sun.

If Chekhov’s self-described comedies tend to lose their laughs when performed by overzealous Americans, Nicky most assuredly does not, even as playwright Alvarez gives his cast plenty of opportunities to strut their dramatic stuff.

Under Beth Lopes’ assured direction, a superb Wilcox reveals Nicky’s conflicted soul, not only in scenes opposite loved (and unloved) ones but in Chekhovian soliloquies delivered to powerful effect. Aguila’s heartbreakingly smitten Masha represents the second time in less than a year that the USC grad has devastated this reviewer with his work. Velasco’s quietly suffering, karaoke-loving Anna is given an eleventh-hour scene of such rage and pain that it too proves indelible.

Nardeep Khurmi provides splendid backup as Anna’s oncologist Lawali (the definition of lovestruck devotion), Kaemon and Swallow are equally terrific as Masha’s supportive parents, and Jeremy Lelliott’s irrepressibly exuberant cousin Misha never fails to delight.

The tangy trio of Barton, Genya, and Silverman give their Russian-born-and-bred characters abundant gusto (and convincing accents thanks to dialect coach Caitlin Muelder), while Barcelon, Hawthorne, and Jacobson add millennial spice, and Caro Zeller delivers some sassy zingers as Pavel and Zina’s maid Gisela.

Nicky looks absolutely sensational on Benoît Guérin’s expansive set, seemingly imported from Palm Springs with mini-swimming pool intact and lit to SoCal desert brilliance by Azra King-Abadi, with additional production design kudos to Karen Fix Curry for her just-right bevy of costumes, Sammi Smith’s spot-on props, and Michelle Stann’s topnotch sound design.

Summer Grubaugh is stage manager. Melissa Pryor is assistant director. Alternates Ron Bottitta, Chelsea Boyd, Leona Britton, Julia Fisher, Kevin Gottlieb, Craig Jorczak, Shawn Kathryn Kane, Gio Munguia, Marta Portillo, David Tran, and Ryan Patrick Welsh as Nicky take center stage on Thursday June 15 and whenever needed.

It takes chutzpah to reinvent a classic and talent to pull it off. In Nicky, Boni B. Alvarez has turned minor Chekhov into a major Coeurage Theatre Company hit.

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Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
June 8, 2017
Photos: John Klopping


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