The Idiots Karamazov

*Please note that any links forwarding to third-party streaming services have no affiliation or monetary connection with Simply Streep.
Release date: November 01, 1974
Venue: Yale Repertory Theatre
Directed by: William Peters
Literature: Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato
Costume Design: Joanne Brandt
Set Design: Michael H. Yeargan
Music: Carol Lees, Richard Lees, Walt Jones

Constance Garnett (Meryl Streep), the doddering British translatrix of the Russian classics, is embarking on her translation of The Brothers Karamazov. Her failing memory and obstinate self-regard make the process difficult, and soon the Russian brothers (Christopher Durang, John Rothman) are joined by a host of characters, literary and real, who can scarcely tell their troikas from their samovars. Soon Mary Tyrone is rubbing shoulders with Anaïs Nin at a monstrous tea party where sexual conventions are abandoned and the politics are revolutionary. The Karamazovs are a mighty clan, but can even they survive the coup de plume when Constance drops her authorial guard and enters the fray herself?

Christopher Durang (Alyosha Karamazov), John Rothman (Fyodor Karamazov), Meryl Streep (Constance Garnett), Ralph Redpath (Ernest), Charles Levin (Ivan Karamazov), Franchelle Stewart Dorn (Grushenka), R. Nersesian (Dmitri Karamazov), Stephen Rowe (Smerdyakov Karamazov), Jeremy Geidt (Father Zossima), Danny Brustin, Evan Drutman (Altar Boys), Linda Atkinson (Tyrone Karamazov), Christine Eastabrook, Lizbeth Mackay (Djuna Burnes), Kate McGregor-Stewart (Anais Pnin), Margot Lovecraft, Dawn Forest (Leather Girls), Peter Blane (Joaquin Pnin)

^

Yale Daily News, November 04, 1974, Laurel Graeber
Opening night of “The Idiots Karamazov” was full of surprises. Somewhere in the middle of the first act, a middle-aged woman turned to her husband and remarked tersely, “This play has no taste.” Although the theatre was dim, anyone could see she was smiling. “The Idiots Karamazov” has no taaste. It also has no reverence, no respect for the sacred, and no veneer of gentility. It does possess wit and a flair for the absurd. These qualities and fine acting combine to make the latest Yale Rep production a magnificently funny and exciting play. As the title suggests, authors Christopher Durand and Albert F. Innaurato have taken Dostoyevsky’s characters and placed them in an insane world where both time and pages of books trail on to infinity. The play presents us with a “Western literature through the looking glass” which reads something like a cross between a Mad Magazine parody and a story hour at Bellevue. “Idiots” is probably the only play where a Russian novel takes place in “the best of times, the worst of times,” where Alyosha Karamazov is referred to as “Baby Tuckoo” and where O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone snorts cocaine and shoots her beloved morphine into her veins with a pestle. The focal character of all this nonsense is Constance Garrett. Looking like a somewhat more affable Wicked Witch of the West, she narrates and stage manages the play from her wheelchair. Meryl Streep’ performance in the role is superb, and although her diction is not always clear, she delivers the critic’s view with a true sense of drama: “Why must writers be so concerned with matters sexual?… Do I need sex? No”. Ernest Hemingway (“Oh, he’s so moody”) is her servant, pushing her around the stage as she yells page numbers and opens the representative vignettes.

This attempt at structure is merely an excuse for outrageous attacks on all language and literature. The Karamazov family and their affectionate whore, Grushenka, proceed from monastery to whorehouse to Ana-Nin’s salon with startling rapidity, dropping names, dates, and literary allusions on the way. The actors show themselves quite capable of the play’s demands. Charles Levin as Ivan Karamazov delivers with perfect deadpan expression the line, “Aujourd’hui mon pere est mort,” and later gestures toward the curtain (arras?) to describe the dreadful smell arising from the event.
Kate McGregor-Stewart has the appropiate melodramatic posturing for Anais “Pnin” (“I can never see my way out of the existential mess”) and Christopher Durang’s Shirley Temple expression is perfect for Alyosha. Jeremy Geidt, always delightful, plays a perverted priest with a foot fetish. One of the most comic moments of the play occur when he gives the lines (known only to those from the right junior high schools), “When you speak of this later – and I know you will – be kind.” Credit must go to the director, William Peters, who has expertly staged both the burlesque and dramatic aspects of the production. The song numbers, especially, are choreographed with a humorous mixture of chors line, strip-tease, and children’s parade. Stephen Rowe’s (Smerdyakov Karamzov) elaborate epileptic fits and Linda Atkinson’s (Mary Tyrone) Hepburn imitiation are strokes of genius. Such a grand farcial enterprise as “Idiots” could be a travesty if it took itself seriously. Happily, it does not. It parodies both dramatic technique and theatrical satire itself with startling finesse.

Included are overplayed passions, long-winded and supposedly incidental introductions to other characters, and the self-effacing lines: “What sort of God would bring all these characters together… what demon…? Is this interesting?” The play does exhibit weakness when it becomes too involved in its own purpose. During the second act, it sometimes degenerates into an overintellectualized game where the object is to cram as many illusions as possible into the smallest number of lines. At these points, the viewer feels the pressure to keep laughing and look up the book tomorrow.The major joke of the play is that is presupposes the very erudition it so heartily lampoons. Appreciation of the satire does not occur without a prior knowledge of the “Too Great” books.