The place and time is Paris in 1925. Two former Russian dignitaries—a Grand Duchess and a general of the cavalry—have been ousted from power by the Bolsheviks and driven into exile. They live in the squalor of a rundown hotel with barely enough money to buy food, let alone pay their room and board. But they’ve got love. And fortitude. And stalwart patriotism. And four billion francs in the bank which they refuse to touch, money that generates no shortage of suitors.
This improbable circumstance opens Tovarich, a 1933 play by Frenchman Jacques Deval adapted for English-speaking audiences by Robert Sherwood, now receiving a rare staging at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Bonnie Monte, the show’s director and theater’s artistic director describes the mentality that brought Tovarich to her stage as that of the treasure seeker, one who combs through many layers of soft soil to find the hidden gems packed deeply in the clay below. Tovarich certainly fits the “hidden” criterion. Popular on English-speaking stages in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, its esteem and production frequency have fallen sharply over the past fifty years. And so while Monte is to be applauded for unearthing a rarity rather than trotting out a sure-fire stage regular, Tovarich stretches any definition of “gem” to the point of breakage.
Unbalanced in its aesthetic and unfocussed in its investments, the play moves abruptly and jarringly from romance to slapstick comedy to political intrigue, and cannot seem to decide if its primary concern is its characters and their struggles or a commentary on the larger political framework in which they operate. More problematic, that political framework—the social, political, and economic aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution during which Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew the country’s Tsarist government—seems a complex and distant affair, complicating the task of comprehending both the plot and its contemporary resonance. Artists and critics will always identify generalizable themes in plays and insist that they render the play universally relevant. And certainly themes of love, faithfulness, idealism, and class struggle resonate in our time as they would in any. But Tovarich is a play much more of its moment than of the ages. It is a play about the changing face of Russia in the 1920s, and while we may be charmed by the central love or impressed by the depths of performance by the play’s two principles, there is little here to grip us with its immediacy.
The central lovers are Tatiana (Carly Street), a Grand Duchess in the days before revolution, and her husband Mikail (Jon Barker), a general in the cavalry and a prince by marriage. The money in the bank comes from the former Tsar who entrusted it to Mikail shortly before being ousted from power on orders that he would protect it until the upstart revolutionaries could be quelled and power could be restored. Mikail and Tatiana live in poverty because Mikail’s honor will not allow him to touch the money he vowed to keep safe and unmolested. Yet, although living in poverty, the two former nobles do not live in anonymity: they receive constant visits from the French bank officials seeking a conversion of the savings into bank bonds as well as surreptitious visits from Russian communist spies, in search of a way to bring the money back to their country.
Mikail and Tatiana remain resolute to preserve the money for none but a Tsar returned to power, but their resolution forces them to steal groceries and haggle for day-to-day survival. News soon comes, however, that the French government has been picking up the tab for the couple’s living expenses in an effort to woo their faith, suddenly cheapening the honor the two feel over roughing it as peasants in exile.
Determined to make it on their own strength, the couple flees downtown Paris to take a job as live-in servants to a wealthy country family. Only once the family’s banker patriarch invites dignitaries over for dinner are the secret identities of “Tina” and “Michel” in danger of exposure. The occasion of the dinner party provides the play’s nexus of comedy, political intrigue, love, faithfulness, and patriotism.
Barker and Street impress with their nimbleness in moving from light comedy to tense drama, but their skill is summoned primarily by the need to satisfy the play’s weaknesses. The performers must be agile because the play moves abruptly and inconsistently from sight gags and comic mistaken identities to the intense meeting of personal and political decisions. Certainly theatre allows space for comedy and drama on the same stage, and some of the best plays mix them freely, but Tovarich suffers from their imbalance and its own unclear focus. It seems to want to be a politically-minded comedy, but the gags and laugh lines often undercut the political insights, and ultimately the political commentary becomes subservient to the story of Mikail and Tatiana’s love and devotion. All the commitments of the two are put to their most arduous test at the play’s climax, but the play has dedicated so much time to establishing underdeveloped comic plotlines that little space is left to explore the tensions within Mikail and Tatiana, and the resolution becomes rushed and oversimplified.
There is much to enjoy in the two primary performances of this production, but Tovarich is a play with more ideas than execution. While the argument that the play offers certain corollaries to contemporary politics is not without merit, Tovarich’s political concerns ultimately fade into pat and romantic patriotism while the endurance of true love rises to prominence. Romance is lovely, as is scrutiny of political idealism, but in only half baking its investment in both, Tovarich fails to deliver on either.