Funnily enough, Love’s Labour’s Lost isn’t the only musical I saw in the past week whose plot hinges on the decision to postpone a youthful marriage for a year. I also took in the singularly delightful Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a musical-cum-cabaret based on Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War and Peace.
I call it a musical-cum-cabaret because the action plays out in a nightclub erected for the occasion in a tent in the meatpacking district. Within, that space manages to move smoothly between the early-19th-century Moscow Tolstoy depicts (duels, high society, empire-waist dresses), the later-19th-century Moscow Tolstoy inhabited (with the emergence of a demimonde and café society), and a New Yorker’s view of contemporary Moscow ($1000/bottle champagne and ambiguously-gendered hosts). The action plays out among and between the tables, and on a runway stage that surrounds the diners (dinner is included in the ticket price).
And the play itself functions as a kind of bridge; David Molloy, who adapted the piece, neither updates it to reflect contemporary sensibilities nor pretends that we can simply will ourselves into a world two centuries gone – and so, instead, he has the actors somewhat consciously tell the story. They are speaking to us, but they are speaking to us about them, then, there. And the actors cross that bridge without ever falling off into the abyss of parody or knowingness.
I also said the play is based on Tolstoy’s novel; actually, it’s based on a single episode, about half way through the book, in which (spoilers) Natasha (a delicate Phillipa Soo), daughter of the once-wealthy but now debt-ridden Rostov family, falls in love with
Anton Anatole (Lucas Steele, a pouty would-be rock star), wastrel son of the Kuragins, even though she’s already engaged to the wealthy, brooding widower, Andrei Bolkonsky (a very inner Blake Delong, who also doubles as his own father, the elderly and – in this production much more so than in the Tolstoy – increasingly demented Count Bolkonsky). But she’s no Anna. She’s just very young – a marvelous introductory song introduces each character with a single epithet one after another like an inspired campfire circle game: Dolokhov’s fierce, Anton Anatole’s hot, Helene’s a slut, Marya’s “old school,” Sonya’s good, Natasha’s young – and rather vain.
And Ms. Soo breaks our heart making us love her for these, frankly, utterly common qualities. When she declares that she loves
Anton Anatole because she’s reading his love letter (in 19th-century Russia, the chorus reminds us, we write letters), and how could she be reading his love letter if she didn’t love him . . . well, who hasn’t followed that teenage logic once in their life? It’s so clear that she would never have fallen, and very nearly come to a tragic end, if it weren’t for the fact that (as the campfire game song repeatedly reminds us) “Andrei isn’t here.” Because he’s gone away.
In the novel, Andrei leaves Natasha to go to a sanatarium. He goes to nurse his war wound; but he leaves his bride-to-be behind as part of a scheme to win his father over to a match the old man opposed. Of course, one senses the father would have opposed any match, but by the same token Andrei’s decision to agree to a year-long separation at his father’s behest shows a certain lack of enthusiasm for the marriage on his own part. The play alters this, having Andrei leave not to nurse a war wound but to go to war. This is much easier to understand, but it also makes Natasha’s actions less sympathetic than in the book, and lets Andrei off very much off the hook.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Andrei is a much more important character in the book than in the play, and we know enough about him for his brief return towards the end of the play to be deeply moving. The play focuses very narrowly on this incident, and on the culminating moment of generosity and forgiveness that Natasha’s fall elicits from poor befuddled Pierre (a marvelously genuine David Abeles). Pierre hovers in the background for most of the play, drinking, watching his wife blatantly cuckold him; he momentarily rouses himself to challenge Dolokhov to a duel, but he’s hoping to be killed, and despairs when he wounds Dolokhov and comes off himself without a scratch. But he has the power, because of his wealth and position, and because of his family connection to
Anton Anatole (his wife’s brother) to get the blackguard out of town and put the scandal at least somewhat to rest.
This he does, manfully. But his real Tolstoyan moment comes when he visits Natasha, to comfort her. He asks her if she truly loved “that bad man” and Natasha says he shouldn’t call him bad, takes all the blame on herself, and declares her life is over. And then Pierre tells her – in the only bit of dialogue that isn’t sung – that if he were free to do so, and if he could believe he deserved such happiness, he would ask her to marry him on the spot. Though very little actually happens at that moment – she smiles, he leaves – it’s the moment that saves both of their lives.
The power of those moments – limited, as all things are on this earth, and yet transcendent – is at the heart of Tolstoy’s art. Their emblem, in this play, is the great comet, which is realized with magical economy right there in the Kazino nightclub, a revelation of the comet (itself realized with magical economy) that portends both war (with Napoleon) and peace (in Pierre’s heart). I will confess, I wept openly when it appeared.
The whole evening is a delight, to every faculty, sensual and moral.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 plays at Kazino, which will be dismantled after September 2nd. But don’t despair: it may be going to Broadway.