Thursday, June 24, 2021

601. THE WOOD DEMON. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Sheila Reid, Ian McKellen. 
THE WOOD DEMON [Dramatic Revival] A: Anton Chekhov; TR: Ronald Hingley; D: David Giles; S: Kenneth Mellor; C: Stephen and Wendy Doncaster; L: Howard Eldridge; P: Brooklyn Academy of Music i/a/w Brooklyn College in the Actors Company Production; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 1/29/74-2/24/74 (10)

Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge founded the Actors Company in 1972 as a democratically organized troupe in which all decisions were arrived at communally. The group came to New York in 1974 as part of a British season at BAM, and offered four plays in repertory. Their production of The Wood Demon, the 1889 prototype of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, was the first major staging of this rarely-seen comedy (an Off-Off Broadway version was offered by the Equity Library Theatre in 1967). It turned out to be, if not the masterpiece represented by the later play, a finely written drama in its own right and perfectly suited to the stage.

The Actors Company, which drew out “the almost Dickensian eccentricities of the play’s characters,” wrote Clive Barnes, gave a “consistently entertaining” interpretation of it. It offered comedy and pathos in equal measure and allowed for sensitively detailed characterizations by the talented company. Most of the critics found the experience of viewing this incipient Vanya a fascinating experience, especially as the later play had only recently been given a star-studded revival at the Circle in the Square, directed by Mike Nichols.

Walter Kerr even discovered material here he wished Chekhov had retained. In particular, he pointed to the character of the “wood demon,” Dr. Kruschov (McKellen), who later developed into the supporting figure of Astrov, but here dominated the action. This may partly have been owing to what Barnes dubbed McKellen’s “brilliant” performance, which Edith Oliver described as “absolutely wonderful, . . . so sensitive and intemperate in manner that a few of his neighbors consider him a psychopath.” McKellen earned a Drama Desk Award for his performance.

The entire production was generally lauded, but John Simon praised only the direction, declaring that the acting was uneven. This applied to a sizable cast including such eventually renowned artists as John Woodvine, Robin Ellis, Robert Eddison, Edward Petherbridge, and Sheila Reid.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on by clicking here.  

Next up: Words and Music.