We gave it a C
The Off Broadway season is awash with interactive shows chronicling Great Russian Writers (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) and modern political leaders (Here Lies Love), but in Classic Stage Company’s new revival of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (playing through June 23), they won’t make you eat carpaccio, down vodka shots, or disco dance onto the stage. (Here, you can volunteer to be a guest at a wedding or participate in a singalong that involves the obstinate refrain of…”oh”). But after the wan two-and-a-half hours that unfold, you’ll very likely want to do any of those other things.
Director Brian Kulick’s stripped-down staging in CSC’s thrust environs is agreeable enough at first, as it launches a fractured fairy tale about young maid Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis, surprise Tony nominee last year for Once), who goes on a journey with an abandoned baby boy after his natural parents become indisposed. Despite being promised to a young paymaster-in-training (Alex Hurt, son of William), Grusha treks into the mountains, battles scarlet fever, and acquires a shifty, abusive new husband. Eventually, she lands in a custody court battle presided over by a drunken, mangy buffoon named Azdak, portrayed by Christopher Lloyd in full-on Doc Brown wide-eyed glory.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is regarded as one of Brecht’s pivotal works due to its anti-realist, political through-lines and expertly weaved-in musical interludes (duties handled here by Spring Awakening‘s able Duncan Sheik, with an assist by late poet W.H. Auden). The play is durable enough to withstand bold strokes, but the chief disappointment in this production is how often it retreats to the middle ground — even in the performances. The younger cast members, particularly Davis, consistently work in a completely earnest mode, while the seasoned vets on stage veer more toward the manic, especially the game Lloyd (when he’s fully intelligible, that is). Even the redoubtable Mary Testa — one of New York theater’s great bellowers — seems more straitjacketed than usual here as the fur-wearing governor’s wife who abandons her baby.
A certain languor sets in during the lengthy second act, mainly because there’s a too sudden shift in tone as Azdak and his buffoonish antics take center stage (complete with crotch grabs and fart jokes). It isn’t until the titular scene, when Azdak draws a circle of combat highlighting the (literal) tug of war for custody of the child, that the play springs to any sort of emotional life. Up until that point, Kulick’s production continually burns — to quote Lloyd’s most famous screen role — at considerably less than 1.21 gigawatts. C