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Theater Review:

Terrapin Theatre’s "THE NINA VARIATIONS" at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre


Some writers should learn to leave well enough alone. That theory especially applies to playwright Steven Dietz who, besides a propensity for self-indulgent rambling, believes he can offer us poignant alternatives to Anton Chekhov’s quite perfect play, "The Seagull." More specifically, Dietz – instead of writing a new adaptation of "The Seagull" – decided to pack a series of "what ifs" regarding the fateful scene between tormented writer Treplev and free-spirited actress Nina (who runs off with the so-called mediocre writer Trigorin) into a one act and call it "The Nina Variations."

Terrapin Theatre, which has devoted its current season to Russian plays, is conveniently presenting this production on the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre’s set for its glorious staging of "Uncle Vanya." One could not encounter two more disparate theatrical visions. As I discussed in my review of "Uncle Vanya," the Steppenwolf production will convert anyone who thinks Chekhov’s plays are stodgy, samovar-infested museum pieces. I attended "The Nina Variations" later that evening and was reminded why Chekhov is so rampantly misperceived.

Dietz, serving as a contemporary voice for the prescient Russian scribe, commits one of the worst artistic crimes. He makes Chekhov sound alternately petty and silly; weighty and self-aware.

It also doesn’t help that Brad Nelson Winters’ un-nuanced and un-varied direction hovers in a trite, melodramatic sphere. "Uncle Vanya’s" 150-minute running time felt like a blink. So imagine how excruciating it can be when Dietz’s 60-minute play drones on for so long it seems as if the 21st century came and went. This sense of eternity is further aggravated by an actor off to the side ringing a bell and displaying numbered pieces of papers to indicate the odd 42 "rounds" or scenes.

Terrapin is not wholeheartedly at fault – although it’s a bit baffling why the company chose this pointless play. Scott Letscher as Treplev and Franette Liebow as Nina have very little room to explore their characters’ growth in this unsettling, scattershot work. Dietz, who is more concerned with deconstructing the writer’s craft and sources of inspiration than providing new insights into Treplev’s and Nina’s doomed relationship, seems to be using "The Nina Variations" to ponder out loud – and subsequently to justify – his chosen career.•

Terrapin Theatre’s production of "The Nina Variations" runs Sundays at 7 p.m., through July 22, at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: $10. Call 312-335-1650. Terrapin is also staging Nikolai Gogol’s "The Government Inspector" through July 15 at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 312-902-1500.

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