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The Moscow Times Wednesday, May 21, 1997

By John Freedman

In "The Whim" at the Novy Drama Theater, Andrei Sergeyev has created something of a sequel to his extravagant, colorful production of "The Ball." As with last season's show, "The Whim" revives a play that has long wallowed in obscurity. In this case it is a comedy written by Pyotr Nevezhin in the 1870s, later reworked by the great Alexander Ostrovsky. And once again, Sergeyev bestowed the honors of leading lady on the magnificent Vera Vasilyeva.

That is where the direct parallels with the previous show end, however. "The Whim," breezing through the rolling, musically inspired first act, and trudging rather heavily through the second act, is a much more intimate chamber piece than its flamboyant predecessor.

Sergeyev's own set of an elegant oval drawing room -- where the grandeur of the essentially unfurnished room is achieved through a high ceiling and richly colored maroon walls -- remains unchanged except for the walls' increasingly tattered look as time passes. Nataliya Zakurdayeva's costumes are refined and subdued.

Sergeyev reshuffled the relationships among the characters, returning to Nevezhin's original plan. Here, Serafima Sarytova (Vasilyeva) is a widow with two intriguingly mysterious daughters, Olga (Marina Yakovleva) and Nastya (Yekaterina Syomina). Their family's former wealth is slowly being squandered by the steward Barkalov (Denis Bespaly), an arrogant profligate who has captured Sarytova's fancy.

Sarytova is described by the authors as "an elderly woman younger than her years." That is reason enough to make Vasilyeva the only actress I know who could possibly do the part full justice. Her radiant, sunshine smile, her waterfall laugh, the dancing light in her eyes and her effortless agility not only belie, but furiously defy her 70-something years.

Vasilyeva epitomizes all the best that "The Whim" has to offer. Her passion for her unscrupulous steward is entirely believable because her delightfully self-centered character is so honest and unencumbered by social convention. When Olga asks if she is expected to sacrifice her future because of her mother's "whim," Vasilyeva's Sarytova doesn't bat an eyelash: "Yes," she answers instantly in her girlish, sing-song voice.

The buoyant musicality early on is derived not only from the songs Sergeyev carefully wove into the action, but from the ebb and flow he gave the actors' intonations of speech and subtly controlled movements. Sergeyev is never judgmental about Sarytova's caprice; his tolerance, even affection, for her weakness infuses Vasilyeva's performance with warmth and understanding.

But the further the action moves away from Sarytova, the more it pales. That seems less a fault of the cast, all of whom turn in admirably comic performances, than of Sergeyev's failure to create for them the same saturated atmosphere he so generously provided for Vasilyeva.

As Bondyreva, who comes to extract her older sister from the grips of her debauched steward, Lyubov Novak is regal and ironic. As Lizgunov, a priggish, self-important young man who has designs on Olga and whose wealth could bail out the increasingly impoverished Sarytova, Andrei Astrakhantsev is a knot of comic quirks. As the local eccentric Guryevna, who wanders in and out, possibly filching valuables along the way, Marina Nikolayeva turns in some hard-edged buffoonery.

Most telling of the show's duality is Denis Bespaly's performance of the rakish Barkalov. In the proper circumstances this character might challenge Sarytova for the play's lead. But here, the steward resolutely remains an effective shading.

Even that, however, is no mean fate. One could do worse than fall under the shadow of Vera Vasilyeva. As she demonstrates once again in this bittersweet comedy of late-blooming love, she is an actress of incomparable charm and impeccable talent.