When Ezra Met Anton

It always happens. Right as I am about to list my teenager for sale on eBay, something happens that convinces me that all hope is not lost.

Last week, in the wake of his lost extra credit assignments, failure to give notification of schedule changes, lost phone, and a C in PE. PE!! I decided to throw caution to the wind, and instead of punishing my kid, reward him with a precious gift.

I planned to take him to see his first Chekhov play.

I imagine this is akin to being an accountant and having your child successfully balance a checkbook; or if you were a chef, that first perfectly poached egg; a golfer, a score of… ok, enough of that metaphor, I have no idea if the goal in golf is to be under or over par. You get it. My husband was typically optimistic, “You’re taking him to see Chekhov? Good luck, you’ll never make it all the way through,” but this is all part of my agenda of exposing my off spring to important experiences. Art, music, politics, acts of service: things of value that will resonate for the rest of his life, whether he’s interested or not, damn it!

Chekhov has been my favorite playwright, since the first production I saw at eighteen of The Seagull. I laughed, I cried, I took in the sweet futility of it all. It’s a glorious weeper as are all of his works. I tried to explain Chekhov’s “oeuvre” in the car ride to the theatre, though not daring to spell the word. “Chekhov was blessed and cursed with seeing the end of things at the beginning of them. Love, ambition, mortality – all the big themes in life – Chekhov plays out within the small world his characters inhabit,” I rattled off as he tried to tune me out with the radio.

Okay, perhaps this is a little heady stuff for a 14 year old, so I hedged my bets by adding, “We can always leave at intermission,” as we parked and headed inside. Before the play started, I introduced my son to the director and then fed him as much candy as he could eat so as to buoy exposure to the melancholia of the Russian spirit with a sugar high.

Short summary: The play concerns a very charismatic protagonist, Ivanov, and his small community. It deals with social standing, gossip, greed and lust and the deleterious effect they have on the human soul. A bonus in the play is a tutorial on seduction still as relevant today as when Chekhov wrote it. The more Ivanov tells women that he doesn’t love them, that it will never work for them, that they are doomed and ill fated, the more they throw themselves at him. Hopefully my son took mental notes on that plot point- just to make the ticket price really pay off.

As the play began, I could hear my son laughing and I could feel he was engaged, I say feel, though, and not see, because making eye contact in public, verboten, per previous posts, but his body language and the fact that he wasn’t whispering, “Let’s go, now, mom, I hate you for bringing me here,” told me he was engaged.

As the lights went up for intermission, I discovered that my son’s initial reaction was both encouraging and typical teenager. He deemed it depressing. Score one for mom. Yes, I had successfully introduced him to the artful depiction of depression. He thought the main actor was radiant (his word) and had depth. He also added, “I could do that,” with the confidence that is characteristic of teenagers. “Do you want to act,” I asked with trepidation? “No, but if I did, I would give that kind of performance.” What I wouldn’t give for that kind of boundless belief in myself.

In the lobby, we spoke to the director. My kid summed it up well, he liked the staging, found the plot and language enjoyable and noted that he didn’t care for the performance of the lead actress. Yes, my teenager was suddenly an expert on the consumptive cough and let it drop that he thought her hacking rattle was a tad exaggerated. As we returned to our seats, I casually reminded him that it was to the director of the play that he had been speaking, at which point, he was mortified.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that!!”

“I did,” I said, “but don’t worry, everyone says things without thinking. I’ve said things like that so many times.”

“Well, of course,” he said, “ Because you don’t know how to talk to people.”

As the second act started, I settled into my seat. I thought back to only this week when I came to school to see his PE teacher to try and facilitate a dialogue about that C, the dozens of phone calls the week prior with a new music teacher to help him gain passage into yet another musical opportunity I had sought out for him, not to mention the years of schools, play dates, camps and lessons I have procured though my talking to people. Oh, the futility of it all. To have poured so much love into this child and then to be thus scorned. Motherhood, you cruel mistress! So bittersweet….so Chekhovian.

The play does not in any sense conclude with what would be considered a happy ending, unless you think shooting your self in the head is a more desirable death than consumption, which may be an appropriately dark sentiment for a Russian drama. As Ivanov lay dead on his wedding day, no less, the cast of characters performed a strange and gleeful dance that gave way into a funereal procession and then slowly the crowd dispersed to where? Slinking back into the quiet desperation of their own lives, no doubt. My son loved that part. He found it starkly effective (my words), what he actually said was, “really cool.”

Afterwards in the lobby, he sat as I made the rounds, congratulating the director, and visiting with cast members I knew. In the car on the way home he said, “You know when everyone was talking to the director and cast in the lobby, just now, it was just like that dance in the play, mom. All that excitement and then it’s over.“

My son had not only absorbed the play, but he had related it directly to our life. It was more than I could have hoped for from two hours of theatre.

So what if I don’t know how to talk to people. At least I know how to pick a play.

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