‘The Sneeze’

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble performs The Sneeze Jason O
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble performs The Sneeze Jason O’Connell, Dan Matisa and Laura Piquado.

Not everyone appreciates that the eminent, sensitive Anton Chekhov had a comedic side like Mark Twain’s. As a medical student, he wrote outrageously funny, easy-to-sell stories and farcical one-act plays. These are often muddied by the reverence that’s attached to his well-chiseled portraits of landowners, artists, and Russian bourgeoisie.

The antidote, of course, is to let Anton be Anton. So Phoenix Theatre Ensemble will make “The Sneeze,” Michael Frayn’s fresh and idiomatic translations of Chekov shorts, the next production of its “Play in a Pub” series. This “Chekhov vaudeville” will be presented in a bar – NOHO’s Ace of Clubs, the downstairs of ACME Bar and Grill – from October 14 to November 14, directed by John Giampetro.

In “The Sneeze,” the acclaimed author of “Noises Off” and “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn, serves up the four one-act comic vaudevilles with which Chekhov first made his reputation in the theatre, along with four adapted short stories.

Rowan Atkinson, Cheryl Campbell and Timothy West first performed the piece at the Aldwych Theatre, London in 1988. “How refreshing to encounter the great with a spring in his heel rather than winter in his heart,” wrote the London Sunday Express.

Phoenix’s last Play in a Pub was last April, when it presented “A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot” by Tennessee Williams and “Can Can,” written and directed by Romulus Linney, at the Bacchus Room of Bona Fides Restaurant, Second Avenue at Third Street.

“The Sneeze” is constructed as a tour de force for the actors, who play a series of different roles, one after the other, allowing the audience to relish their charm and versatility. The characters are a mostly hilarious collection of Chekhovian nebbishes: the anxious and undertalented lady writer who tries to read her five-act play out loud to a famous playwright; the minor government official who sneezes on a prominent government official; the burly Russian who subjects his delicate French visitor to rough country philosophy and gobs of hot mustard; the old actor on an empty stage; and the gentle man, scared of his wife, who fails to give a speech on the evils of tobacco.

Costuming will be strictly 19th century, befitting the period of the playlets. The casting will befit their spirit. Phoenix has cast the project with the comedically-skilled trio of Jason O’Connell, Dan Matisa and Laura Piquado. O’Connell is a comedian in his “other life”; he has headlined at Caroline’s and appeared numerous times at Gotham City, Stand-Up New York, UCB, The P.I.T., Don’t Tell Mama and The Comic Strip.

It’s not going to be the usual kind of Pub Theater where the audience is at one end, the play is at the other, and the twain don’t meet. In this production, the world of the bar will actually be the world of the play. The central storyteller will be a bartender and when a character asks for vodka, he’ll actually get one. The character giving a lecture on the evils of tobacco will be using the sound system made for an open mic night. The scenes will move around the premises and area lighting will pick them out.

Director John Giampetro grew up in Philadelphia. He has directed for Actors Theatre of Louisville, Vermont Shakespeare Company, and Ensemble Studio Theatre among others. For The Accidental Theatre Company in NYC he has directed “Joan of Lorraine,” “Miss Julie,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Feeding the Dead.” His current projects include his own play, “Strength of God and other grotesques,” based on the novel “Winesburg, Ohio” and a one-woman piece based on the life and after-life of Marie Antoinette.

Set and lighting design are by John Giampetro. Costume design is by Lilli Rhiger.

October is a month of comedy for Phoenix Theater Ensemble. Coinciding with this production, the group is presenting “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged]” by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, & Jess Winfield from October 1 to 31 at The New York Improv, 318 W 53rd St., (between 8th and 9th Avenues).

Later in the fall, the troupe will return to sterner stuff, with Anouilh’s “Antigone,” directed by Eve Adamson, November 28 to January 2, presented in repertory with an Ionesco Double-Bill of “The Lesson,” directed by Amy Wagner, and “The Painting,” directed by Kevin Confoy, December 7 to January 4. These productions will be at The Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street. Complete season schedule and ticketing information are online at www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org.

Ace of Clubs, below ACME Restaurant, Great Jones Street at Lafayette Street

Critics are invited on or after Sunday, October 15 at 7:00 pm

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.