THE BOOR, by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Barry Growe '67 and designed by Andrew Eustis '69

by '69
Amherst Student

The Boor, 1967

The second of the one-act plays was Chekhov's "The Boor," directed by Barry Growe. Everyone involved did a nice job. It's a nice play. Thin, predictable, unsurprisingly, mildly funny. I can never quite understand why so many fervent admirers try to think of many of Chekhov's one-act comedies in the same light as his full-length masterpieces. Specifically, the two one-acts by Chekhov that I've seen here. "The Marriage Proposal" and "The Boor" have both left me completely unmoved. Either too much laughter, or any other significant response. I still see them as very good skits. Fine for television. As for the theatre – well, they're nice, and certainly not challenging, for the audience especially. We sit and watch, and when we see a little funny part arrive, we pick up our cue and pleasantly laugh. And when it's over, we forget it. Even before it's over.

Anyway, down at Kirby, Chekhov was handled with obvious care. Paul Mintzer '70 played Grigori, the retired military man who comes to a widow's house to collect a debt, argues with her, challenges her to a duel, and by the end, realizes he's in love with her. We realize it by the middle. Or before. Mintzer did a fine, re-strained job. Somehow he resisted being Jackie Gleason. All to the benefit of the play, too.

Lila Geer (University '70) as the widow was competent, but she missed most of the comic potential of the part. There was too much restraint to no purpose, without transition or variety. The result was a bit pallid, un-authoritative, underdeveloped. Growe handled tne movements and the slapstick with admirable timing and fluidity, though at times he seemed uncertain of whether to try for completely mad, over physically oriented comedy or a more underplayed, suggestive, casual form of "ensemble wit." Overall, he did a good job of keeping the whole thing moving forward, anyway. And the faster this one moves, the better. For my taste, at least. George Bentley '70, in the other role of the old butler, was funny and believable. Both he and Mintzer also seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously. So did the audience. As the play ended, and the actors arranged them-selves for a rather unnecessary, self-consciously "cute" curtain call that almost summarized the tone of the production, I could hear multitudes of little old ladies around me chittering to no one and everyone in particular: "What an adorable little work." They were very nice ladies, too. Even without tennis sneakers. In fact, some of them were men, and students from Smith and Amherst. Maybe next year we'll all get together again over muffins and tea and a nice safe play.

THE NEW TENANT, by Eugene Ionesco. Directed and designed by Stephen Barker '68

by '69
Amherst Student

I knew nothing about "The New Tenant" until I saw it at Kirby on Friday, directed by Stephen Barker '68. I consider it now as one of the most extraordinary and impressive theatrical achievements I've ever come across. Not so much a great play as merely a great use of the concept of theater.

For most of the play's forty-five minutes or so, we sit and watch as two moving men systematically bring furniture into a bare room, piece by piece, while a new tenant does nothing but casually direct their actions in a weird, irrational, systematical, ritualistic manner. By the end of the play, the room is crammed with furniture piled on top of itself, under itself, and next to itself. One piece sprouting branches of another.

Finally the tenant closes himself off on either side with screens, and is left by the movers in utter darkness, happy and safe, protected by a truth that he's created that he controls. Eternal furniture to help him live. Caged and well.

There he is. Modern man. With his objects. Alone and pleased. Ionesco says it better than all the wordy, pretentious plays about alienation. He says it better because he doesn't say it at all. He shows it. And, as he does it, he manages to explore fascinating potentials for the theatre as well. For the nature of theatre. As it once was. Ritualistic, ceremonial, magic and religious. And there sits the audience, simply watching the objects come in. Slowly. Waiting. Somehow as absurd as the characters, and as real. One doesn't watch a play so much as a rite, ingeniously conceived to make the viewer a major participant. In this play, tone and style and method become more than tools to bring forth the author's expressions. They become those expressions themselves. And the audience cannot help but be sucked in. No matter how frightening the vision, no matter how grotesquely comic the ceremony.

Virtuoso Directing

Barker's production seemed a bit "loose" at times. The play moved too casually, too easily, too improvisationally. It should seem spontaneous, but with an undertone of strict rigidity. Pre-planned to the minutest detail. A bit more planning may have been needed. However, despite this reservation, Barker did not try to hoke up the play at all, and managed the piling up of the furniture with incredible foresight. Practically speaking, this was a virtuoso directing performance. Dave Rea '69 and Bill Hart '69 as the moving men were fine, and Thomas Miller '70 underplayed the new tenant brilliantly. Theresa Mason, as a landlady, seemed a bit confused about what she was doing, and the manner in which she should say her lines, but she played with good energy and gusto, if without the right feeling of old age. Barker should be praised a great deal for tackling a difficult, amazing play and bringing it off so well, if not flawlessly. And seeing it for the first time was great. Without reservations.

A Letter: Director of ‘The Boor’ Answers Criticism

by '67
Amherst Student

Jim Steinman '69 writes extremely well about Ionesco's “The New Tenant” (STUDENT, May 7). He calls it a ritual; the audience watches as a man cages himself in with furniture, shutting out every stimulus from landlady to sunlight to radio waves, and perches in his armchair, "happy and safe." My teeth grind, as Jim knew they would, when he equates enjoyment of the Chekhov play I directed with numb serenity of Ionesco's modern man.

Barry Growe, director of The Boor

Why does Jim call "The Boor" a nice safe play, which one enjoys over "muffins and tea?" I think I know why. I think he believes that any thing an audience laughs at easily, not out of bitterness over the human condition or condescension towards the stupid characters on stage, lacks meaning. To me, "The Boor" is meaningful because it is so innocuous, because it doesn't have to howl like Allen Ginsberg or Albee or Leroi Jones, whose "Dutchman" Jim is now staging. We laugh comfortably at Smirnov and Madame Popova because their crisis is a trivial one. Smirnov's frustration at not being able to collect from his debtors leads him not into ugliness, but silliness. Same thing with Popova's insistence on mourning the death of a husband she obviously had no reason to love: why, she should be happy to return to the world of the living.

And when the silliness of these two characters leads to the challenge of a duel, we laugh because we know they are incapable of killing each other. They both are too ordinary, too trivial, too sensible to do it. That makes us laugh in a very different way than does Ionesco's play. Chekhov does not give us Stupidity Incarnate, or Lucidity Incarnate: he gives us what hopefully each one of us is: a man who is both intelligent and foolish, who must work endlessly to keep at bay his foolish side. It is the conflict between man's ability to control himself and his impulse to challenge the entire world to a duel which is meaningful in this play. Jim says the audience is not "challenged" by "The Boor." I would argue that the audience is challenged to see a meaning in their easy laughter, a challenge which Jim cannot meet as long as he continues to yearn for howls, for duels that end in knifings in Central Park or the IRT.

We all know damn well that plays do not seize us and turn us into different beings. All they can do is suggest ways of thinking. And if they talk to us in a context completely unlike our ordinary, trivial experience, they run the risk of creating a world on stage that we will not feel compelled to translate into thoughts about ourselves. We may leave our sense of human ignorance in the theater, where big events are so much at home.

Two examples of where Jim's attitude led him in his critique. He says I seemed uncertain of whether to attempt crazy, farcical humor or more underplayed, drawing room comedy. But I was quite certain – that I wanted both, that I wanted to make the impossible seem, for a moment, possible by shifting rapidly from the normal to the slightly insane. Slapstick, maybe, if you like the word; but isn't it almost believable that a lout like Paul Mintzer, I mean Smirnov, could fall through a chair seat, or break a chair arm, or an end table? And on the other hand, isn't it possible that the sophisticated, un-boorish Popova as played by Lolly Geer could succeed in concealing from Smirnov, though not from the audience, her transitions from confidence that he will quit the house at her command, to uncertainty that anything will move his incredible hulk, to determination to shoot it out with him, to the unnerving discovery that she returns his affection, and finally, in the last line of the play, to the admission of her affection. Here again Jim was looking for uniformity, this time in the acting of Smirnov and Popova. That Chekhov forced them to play differently seems to me a great virtue. Is there any less safety in ranting than there is in casual comedy? If Jim wants to dispute further, he'll find me in my room, preparing the muffins and tea.

Barry Growe '67

Source: Jim's review, Barry Growe's response