The Starship Astrov
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 23, 2010
Duncan Pflaster's new "Chekhovian Space Comedy" The Starship Astrov ties a clever concept to a sci-fi/speculative drama that authentically has something to say. As the title suggests, Pflaster's allusion here is mainly to Uncle Vanya, the basic plot of which he has adapted here. Jonas January is the captain of the eponymous starship, which he operates with the assistance of Marcus Washington, Jenny "Sparky" Camilo, and his daughter, Ally. On this particular voyage, they are bringing a renowned professor, Jason Cole, back to Earth. With Cole are his wife, Celaria, a beautiful alien from a distant planet, and Dr. Michael Rosy, Cole's personal physician. It is principally the unrequited love triangles that Pflaster has borrowed: Marcus is in love with Ally, who is in love with Michael; Michael and Jason are both in love with Celaria (and she, being incapable of human emotion, "loves" neither one).
Apart from the structure (The Starship Astrov is in four acts, though brief ones) and relationships, Pflaster's characters strike Chekhovian attitudes throughout, soliloquizing variously about their boredom, the meaninglessness of their existence, and how posterity may regard them. Sometimes this reads as parody, and sometimes Pflaster gets the essence of Chekhov's take on the human comedy, as in my favorite scene in the play, an impromptu entertainment that the crew and passengers have devised to amuse themselves during the long trip back to Earth. Ally recites poetry badly, and then Dr. Michael plays a tune from out of nowhere on his trusty guitar—and the laughter here is of deep, sympathetic recognition.
But there's something more serious going on in The Starship Astrov, and it's here where Pflaster's imagination really shines. Professor Cole, we are told, was the inventor of the technology that made interplanetary travel feasible in this futuristic age (the program says the play is set in the year 3047). But Cole's latest research has uncovered some alarming findings that indicate his life's work may be harming the universe. The trade-off between maintaining a comfortable, economically viable standard of living on the one hand, and an environmentally sustainable though less desirable existence on the other, becomes the central dilemma of the play. (It's introduced in Act Three; I kind of wished it had come up earlier, so that it could have fueled even more debate and discussion than it already does.)
So we have here a play that's timeless in its examination of the condition (following in the path of the great Russian playwright) and oh so timely in its consideration of ecology versus economy. Eric Parness directs a fine ensemble of seven, costumed a la Star Trek by Mark Richard Caswell on a serviceable but very spare set by Darby Cire, appropriate to the festival environment in which it's being presented. Walter Brandes as Captain January is the play's anchor, and his performance includes some wonderful moments where he really cues us in to what's going on in his character's slow-but-steady churning brain. Elizabeth A. Davis gets the other-ness of the alien Celaria, while Christine Verleny is engaging and likable as "Sparky," who has a bit of a thing for Captain January. Ariel Estrada gives us an eccentric and slightly imperious Professor Cole. Rafael Jordan and Jennifer Gawlik are suitably capricious as the youngest characters in the play, Marcus and Ally. And Philip Emeott is slyly conflicted and self-absorbed as a fairly clueless Dr. Michael.
The writing, concepts, and performances are all well above par for the Midtown International Theatre Festival, though I still felt some pruning and some tightening of script and pacing were possible. The Starship Astrov is certainly a worthy destination at MITF, and I suspect it may surface in another venue in the future (hopefully before the year 3047).