‘This Was the End,’ a Spectral Riff on Chekhov

Posted June 10, 2018 4:43 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Welcome to rural Russia. Have a swig of vodka. We’ll be here a while.

Mallory Catlett’s “This Was the End,” produced by Restless NYC and Mabou Mines at the Mabou Mines Theater in Manhattan, is a foxed love letter to Chekhov’s 1898 play “Uncle Vanya,” which opens with a bunch of characters stranded on a country estate and leaves most of them there, four acts later, a little older, no wiser, conclusively mired. Catlett’s work — curious and cryptic, playful and mournful — imagines these same characters 30 or 40 years further on, still pursuing the same doomed loves and smashed ambitions.

Chekhov wrote in a naturalistic style; Catlett prefers a supernatural one. A meditation on memory and decay, “This Was the End,” which first played a few years ago at the Chocolate Factory in Queens, is less of a play and more of an apparition, a ritual, a haunting in one act. Its first scene is an extended hallucination in which Peter Ksander’s set, goosed by Keith Skretch’s video, appears to flicker and spasm.

Projections of each actor dart across the space, pursued by the live bodies of those same actors, bodies that never quite catch up to the video. Hidden behind a sliding door, the sound artist G Lucas Crane cues these images to a soundscape of prerecorded voices and snatches from the Beatles’ “White Album.” The live actors speak over and around this soundscape, echoing themselves in eerie syncopation. (The dialogue is a mix of scenes from the play and rehearsal chatter in which the actors recap the action.)

The projections and the taped enunciations often look and sound more definite than their live counterparts, suggesting that these characters are living mostly in their memories. The physical world is an annoyance, an afterthought, a place where they mislay their pills and can’t seem to remember why it was that they entered a room or left it.

The emphasis on recurrence and repetition echoes Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata” and Beckett’s “Play” and more recently Enda Walsh’s works, in which characters feel compelled to revisit and re-create past trauma. “This is a farce!” Astrov says. “I’ve said all this before. We’ve done all this before.” Then he says it again and again.

Still, the play isn’t all repetition. In this version, the bored wife Yelena (Rae C. Wright) and the dashing Astrov (James Himselsbach) finally get it on, to the strains of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Now that’s a senior moment.

All the actors are over 60 — a pointed, sympathetic reply to Vanya’s woeful line in the original: “What if I live to be 60?” Black-Eyed Susan, who plays a girlish Sonya, was an essential member of the Theater of the Ridiculous; Zimet, the artistic director of the Talking Band, is an anxious Vanya. One of the pleasures of the show is how it also functions as an elegy to decades of downtown theater-making, to all the actors who walked these same floors and found their light and spoke their lines night after night after night. This show, in this space and with this cast, is summoning them, too.

This work, like most, isn’t for everyone. The program offers a few pointers: Vanya loves Yelena. Sonya loves Astrov. Still, “This Was the End” will reward a thoroughgoing knowledge of the Chekhov original and may baffle the unfamiliar. About 20 minutes in, a man sitting next to me announced, “I don’t know what’s happening, and I don’t care,” then lunged for the exit.

Even the initiated may sometimes feel frustrated. Living up to its title, the show avoids a conclusion. There were at least four moments when I thought the end — or at least an end — had been reached. It hadn’t. But this is Catlett’s point and likely Chekhov’s point, too: Even lives half-lived continue on long after the lights go down.

Additional Information:

‘This Was the End’

Through June 16 at Mabou Mines Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, maboumines.org. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes